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County to get outside opinion on request

POSTED: November 4, 2011 11:19 a.m.

Effingham County commissioners will ask a separate attorney if a contract with a developer means the county will have to pay that developer more money.

In a 4-1 vote, commissioners voted to engage Jonathan Hart to review a reimbursement request from D.M. Jones Construction, Inc., for wastewater system improvements at Buckingham Plantation. Commissioner Vera Jones, who is an owner of the company, recused herself from the discussions.

According to county documentation, D.M. Jones Construction has been paid more than $730,000 in reimbursements for the system improvements and is seeking an additional $49,476.

Commissioner Reggie Loper balked at hiring an outside attorney to review the issue.

“I sort of have a problem with this whole thing,” he said. “We make decisions on millions of dollars of money all the time. Now we’ve got to engage an attorney for $49,000? I just don’t see it. Here we make decisions on millions and millions of dollars as a board of commissioners, and we’ve got $49,000 and we can’t make a decision on it.”

Loper suggested that the staff develop reasons why Jones shouldn’t be paid.

“That’s the reason for hiring legal counsel, to avoid a conflict of interest,” Chairman Dusty Zeigler said. “All of the decisions we make involving a contract, we always get legal counsel’s advice and have them review the contract. This a contract.”

The commissioners had asked county staff to find legal counsel to review the reimbursement request. County staff talked with several different lawyers and recommended Hart, the county attorney for Chatham County. Hart’s fees are $200 per hour.

Commissioner Bob Brantley added that outside legal counsel also could help interpret the contract.

“I don’t think the body as a whole thinks that we shouldn’t pay her,” Commissioner Steve Mason said. “I think the body wants some direction on the legal standing on what the contract says and what is due.”

Added Brantley: “That’s all I wanted, the right direction. I want an interpretation of the contract. That’s all I’m asking for.”

Mason reiterated his stance that if the developers are owed money, the county should pay them.

“And if not, then we need that clarified,” he said.

Because the county attorney represents the entire board, and the issue involves one of the commissioners, Mason said it was prudent to seek outside counsel for this matter.

“Obviously, staff is in a precarious spot because they are dealing with a commissioner also,” he said. “I don’t like spending any more money than anybody else. But if we have an issue, let’s attack it, solve it and move on. That’s what I want to do here — I want to get it resolved.”

Crawley contacted several lawyers about their possible engagement as outside counsel. Some, such as those from the well-regarded firm Hunter MacLean, he couldn’t ask because of a conflict of interest.

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