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Commissioners give OK to elections board attorney
Outside counsel to guide board in Fridays hearing
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Effingham County commissioners approved an engagement letter for the elections board’s attorney choice in Friday morning’s hearing.

The elections board will hear the challenge to 2nd District Commissioner Vera Jones’ candidacy Friday at the county administrative complex. The hearing is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.

County attorney Eric Gotwalt cannot represent the elections board because it would create a conflict, so board members sought the services of Thomas Cole of Cole, Fleming and Clark, a Savannah law firm.

“Under the legislation, we have no choice but to provide them the support,” Commissioner Phil Kieffer said at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Cole will bill the county $250 per hour for his work. Commissioner Steve Mason noted the last time the commissioners sought outside legal advice, they contracted with Chatham County commissioners’ attorney Jon Hart. Hart was hired to determine if the county owed Jones and her company for installing a generator at a lift station.

“The last time, it turned out to be $9,000,” Mason said. “What will be the maximum amount of time to be spent on this? Is this going to be a trial at the board of elections?”

Temporary county administrator Toss Allen said he did not know how long the hearing will last. He said Cole will be with the elections board for the duration of the hearing, “whether it’s two hours or two days.”

The elections board sought an attorney with elections experience. Cole, a 1993 graduate of the University of Georgia’s law school, is admitted to practice before the Southern, Middle and Northern Districts of the U.S. District Court in Georgia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

“The secretary of state advised the board of elections they need to have independent representation,” Gotwalt said.

Jones recused herself during the discussion and the vote. Her attorneys from Scheer and Montgomery in Savannah were present during Tuesday night’s meeting.