Rheubin Taylor remains the Hamilton County attorney as of this Wednesday, despite Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp announcing Oct. 14 that he was removing Taylor from that position effective immediately.
Mayor Wamp said last Friday that he would immediately begin a search to identify an appointment to bring before the County Commission to replace Taylor, who has served as county attorney for almost three decades.
But County Commission members on Wednesday said the county attorney works for both the county mayor and the commission and both should have been involved in any decision to terminate Taylor.
Commissioner Lee Helton, saying the county mayor acted unilaterally, said, “It just doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth. It’s completely inappropriate for someone to come and fire our attorney.”
Other commissioners expressed frustrations at how Mayor Wamp’s announcement of Taylor’s firing was handled, with many saying they learned about it through news reports.
“The lack of transparency in taking this action is troubling,” said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker.
At the suggestion of Baker, the commission agreed to hire outside counsel John Konvalinka to represent the panel for a $10,000 fee.
After meeting with Konvalinka, the commissioners on Wednesday afternoon passed a resolution setting up a civil service system for county employees. Another resolution blocks any firing of county employees (including attorney Taylor) until the new civil service program is set up.
In June 2021, commissioners and then-Mayor Jim Coppinger approved a four-year contract with Taylor lasting through June 30, 2025.
Termination, the contract states, requires a majority of the County Commission, with concurrence from the county mayor or a two-thirds majority without concurrence from the county mayor.
A resolution unanimously passed by commissioners on Wednesday also says attorney Taylor would continue as county attorney “with no lapse” under his 2021 contract.
Mayor Wamp told commissioners that it is not legal for such a contract to extend over to the next administration.
“I’m not gonna go down there and prevent him from walking in the county attorney’s office, I’ve got other things to do,” Mayor Wamp said during a news conference about Attorney Taylor held Wednesday before the commissioners met. “But he doesn’t have access to email. He doesn’t have a county phone, and he’s not on the payroll.”
According to a news release from his office last Friday, “Mayor Wamp came to this decision based on concerns about private legal work Mr. Taylor conducts during business hours, concerns about breach of attorney-client privilege with our office, and previous admissions from Mr. Taylor that his office had systematically destroyed thousands of documents related to open records requests.”
Attorney Taylor, 73, a native of Chattanooga, has a long record of service to the community. When he returned to Chattanooga in 1973, he was the first African American licensed attorney in the city. In 1978, he and the Rev. Paul McDaniel became the first Black Hamilton County Commissioners. Taylor also became the first Black Hamilton County attorney.
Attorney Taylor has continued to work at the courthouse and was present for Wednesday’s commission meeting.
Commissioner Greg Martin indicated the matter could go to court, but chairman Baker hopes that’s not the case.
“We did a number of things, to reinstate the fact that we control the buildings, that he’s our attorney, that we have a contract with him, and that all the contracts that we have, should remain in place,” he said.