Carolina Journal News Reports
GREENSBORO — The late Warren Zevon once sang, “Send lawyers, guns and money.” Right now, Guilford County government is saying forget the guns and money, just send lawyers, lawyers and lawyers.
Guilford’s Board of Commissioners has really shaken up local government in the wake of the economic meltdown. In the past few months, the county has not only lost its county manager and assistant county manager, but also its county attorney and its deputy county attorney.
In December, County Attorney Sharron Kurtz resigned under pressure from commissioners, and Deputy County Attorney Mike Newby resigned in February to accept a position in the Davidson County attorney’s office.
Former Alamance County Attorney David Smith, who also served as Alamance’s county attorney, was appointed Guilford’s interim county attorney in February, only to resign a couple of weeks later. Right now, the county is getting counsel from Matt Mason, an attorney on loan from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department.
Complicating matters is the board’s desire to have a private legal firm represent the board. When they tried to hash it all this out at a recent meeting, confusion ensued.
Commissioner Kirk Perkins explained there were a lot of benefits to having a private firm represent them, since “there would be more than one attorney, and we’ve needed other attorneys in the past to fill in for specific cases.”
Interim County Manager Brenda Jones Fox agreed that a private firm would have a “depth of knowledge that we need as a county,” but also stressed the immediate need for an in-house deputy attorney to handle the county’s pressing legal matters.
With that in mind, Commissioner Billy Yow made the motion that the board’s legal committee pursue requests for proposals for both a legal firm to represent the board and an in-house deputy attorney to handle the county’s day-to-day affairs.
While that might seem like an ambitious undertaking, Yow noted that a new deputy county attorney could provide the board with valuable advice while seeking a firm to represent them.
“We need to approve him in order to get all the parameters for what we as a board would want in a firm,” Yow said.
The confusion came about as the board discussed Yow’s motion. Some commissioners weren’t comfortable with the possibility that attorneys from private firm would supervise an attorney employed by the county — a legal technicality that Mason said would require further study.
Perkins attempted to add some clarity, saying a firm would not supervise employees, but instead would “give recommendations to the board and we would pass those recommendations down.”
Perkins’ clarification didn’t reassure fellow Commissioner Bruce Davis. “I have always been opposed to even the thought [of hiring a firm] because of the conflict of interest that possibly is out there,” Davis said. “When we have a firm, we’ll have an individual that reports to the board but also has to march to the orders of his firm. I think there’s something difficult about serving two masters.”
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman agreed with Davis and made a substitute motion for the interim county attorney — with the assistance of two outside groups — to provide a presentation on the matter.
Perkins responded by saying that Mason had enough issues to deal with in his work in the Sheriff’s Department, and making him work up a presentation could compromise those duties. Yow said the board’s legal committee was more than competent to handle the matter, and he then suggested that Mason help hire the new deputy county attorney.
Coleman’s substitute motion failed, then Yow’s motion passed by 7-3 vote, with Gibson, Coleman and Davis voting no.
At one point, Perkins expressed frustration with the process. “I think I’ve learned a lesson here,” Perkins said. “I now know how our staff feels when they bring something to this board, trying to do their job, and it all gets turned around.”
Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.