All right, so last week when Mayor Pro Tem Grady Smith was appointed to his new position, there was a lot of talk about whether or not he owed Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams an enormous favor.
The rumor was that Smith was now willing to support Williams’ crusade to fire General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie because he helped Smith get the necessary votes to become mayor pro tem.
Well, it appears the deal has been tweaked a bit.
This week, Williams brought up the decade-old debate over whether Augusta-Richmond County should utilize a “county attorney” as lead counsel alongside its current practice of a general counsel heading the law department.
Behaving more civilly toward MacKenzie this week, Williams did not act like a commissioner going for the general counsel’s throat.
Instead, it appears that Williams has come up with a new plan to hire a “county attorney” who would report directly to the Augusta Commission and handle the county’s primary legal concerns.
In Williams’ grand plan, MacKenzie would remain in charge of the law department and handle items such as reviewing city contracts, dealing with real estate matters and managing minor lawsuits facing the city.
But a proposed county attorney would address any legal concerns directly relating to the Augusta Commission.
When Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy asked MacKenzie the difference between a “general counsel” and a “county attorney,” the answer was a bit baffling.
“A county attorney holds the chief legal office for a county government,” MacKenzie said. “The term of general counsel is used to indicate a person who wears two hats. That is, a person who acts as both city attorney and performs the functions as the county attorney.”
But Fennoy pressed MacKenzie to further explain the differences.
“Who would report to who?” Fennoy asked, already seemingly comfortable with the idea that the commission may hire a new county attorney.
“That would be determined by the commission,” MacKenzie said.
Williams seemed pleased with MacKenzie’s answers.
So, for now, it doesn’t appear that Williams is looking to ax MacKenzie anymore.
Only shift things around a bit.
“This body would decide who would do what,” Williams told the commission’s administrative services committee this week. “But the county attorney would not be in the law department, is my thinking. It would be up to the county attorney to advise this body as to what this body is supposed to do to stay out of trouble. That is what the county attorney has always done.”
And MacKenzie would be sort of watching on the sidelines.
“The general counsel would handle the other things around this government that come up that is legal, maybe even some court cases,” Williams said.
Simply put, Williams wants MacKenzie out of his hair.
If MacKenzie doesn’t mind shuffling papers in the law department, it looks like Williams is willing to back down from attempting to fire him just as long as the commission agrees to hire a new county attorney.
Could it be that Williams actually misses some of the past county attorneys, such as Jim Wall and Steve Shepherd, who he treated like dirt in the past?
Apparently, MacKenzie and Augusta’s law department have taught Williams a valuable lesson: You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Oh, for the good ol’ days with Jim Wall or Steve Shepherd at the helm of the city’s legal issues.
To this day, department directors still rave about Wall’s legal advice and direction in serious matters facing the city.
For about 10 years, Wall, a highly-respected local attorney, served as county attorney until the Augusta Commission began discussing the creation of an in-house law department.
By that time, Wall knew it was time to move on.
After all, he had served the position with distinction for almost decade.
Before Wall, his former partner, Bob Daniel, had been the county attorney for approximately 20 years prior to his sudden death in 1993.
Under both Daniel’s and Wall’s legal representation, Augusta was a force to be reckoned with. Lawsuits were often dropped because attorneys did not want to mess with Augusta.
Let’s just say, that not always the case anymore.
Augusta’s reputation is not as strong with its current in-house law department.
Now, it’s not all bad.
Wall, along with several other outstanding private attorneys such as Jim Ellison and Jim Plunkett, are still performing private work for the county on a regular basis with larger lawsuits or contracts facing the county.
But it’s for a price. Getting quality legal advice usually costs the county a pretty penny.
Now, all of a sudden, Williams is feeling nostalgic and wants a “county attorney” who he can bump heads with on a regular basis.
The only problem, there won’t be too many reputable local attorneys racing to get that gig.
And, in the end, there will likely be huge costs associated with Augusta having both a county attorney and a general counsel.
Taxpayers really won’t want to know.