Originally created 11/30/02

County hires outside attorney



WINDER, Ga. - The part-time Barrow County commissioners who were sued by their chairman have hired former Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers to represent them, though the county has insurance that would cover commissioners' legal expenses if they used the insurance carrier's attorney.

The county will pay Mr. Bowers, who served as state attorney general from 1981 to 1997, $300 an hour.

The lawsuit is the latest slap in a bitter dispute between commission Chairman Eddie Elder - who serves as a full-time administrator but votes only when there's a tie - and the six part-time commissioners.

The dispute began with an investigation into alleged zoning irregularities along Georgia Highway 316. It escalated in November when commissioners locked Mr. Elder out of his office and suspended the county's operations manager, Larry Price. Mr. Elder wasn't present at the vote, because he was on medical leave, but the two-term chairman immediately filed suit. A judge ordered his office reopened and Mr. Price put back to work.

The court will consider whether to make those orders permanent at a hearing in the coming weeks, where Mr. Elder's attorney, Michael Daniel of Athens, will face off against Mr. Bowers.

Barrow County pays $40,000 a year to insure elected officials against lawsuits and must cover the first $10,000 of legal bills or a settlement, according to Mr. Elder. Commissioners are most often sued over zoning decisions or accidents that occur on county property.

Mr. Elder challenged the decision to hire Mr. Bowers, questioning in a commission meeting Tuesday whether commissioners should spend tax dollars to defend against his lawsuit when the insurance company would provide an attorney.

Post 4 Commissioner John King, who has spearheaded the zoning investigation, said the current situation is unique. Typically, he said, the county attorney serves as a liaison between the insurance company's lawyer and county officials.

Because County Attorney John Stell has cited a conflict of interest and asked not to handle the matter, the part-time commissioners wouldn't have a neutral staff member to advise them on the progress of the suit, Mr. King said.