In addition to having a county attorney on staff, Walton County also spends a good bit of money on outside counsel.
On Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners voted to renew its retainer with the law firm of Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophette LLP from Nov. 1 of this year through Nov. 1, 2021.
The county's original contract with the Jacksonville law firm expired in 2015, but that technicality had "fallen through the cracks" and become an oversight, said current County Attorney Sidney Noyes, as the county had continued to use the firm, racking up fees of around $30,000 since May 2015.
Noyes asked commissioners to officially approve the invoices that had been paid by the county during that time period.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper questioned Noyes, asking if she felt comfortable that it was an expired contract.
Noyes admitted that best practices is that her office would bring the contract back to the board to ask to extend the contract. However, she noted that the law firm was properly paid and she is only asking now that the board approve.
"My office is taking steps to see this does not happen again in the future," she said, explaining that invoices are signed by several people in different offices.
The request passed 4-1 with Nipper casting the dissenting vote.
Destin Attorney Jen Sullivan questioned the board's handling of the issue.
"This is just another problem Walton County has with transparency," Sullivan said. "You have a county attorney, yet you are asking the tax payers to pay for an outside firm retained in October with no active contract with invoices dating back to 2015. You have in-house people to do this. Should it not have been voted on first? That's $600 a month for 30 months in retainer fees that was not voted on. I have a pretty good basis for filing Sunshine suit over this. People of Walton County demand transparency."
However, Noyes told commissioners that she does not think there is an issue with approval of payment of the invoices from 2015.
"As far as a new contract, we have retained outside well before 2014. In this case it makes sense to have outside counsel because there could be times that I cannot impartially advise. Once I realized the contract had expired, I set out to correct it. I'm trying to be as transparent as possible," said Noyes.
Commission Chair Cecilia Jones said that county employees who filed complaints had asked for an independent investigation and that is what they got. Laughter broke out in the boardroom at her comment.
The law firm's compensation will consist of $600 per quarter as a retainer to include all telephone conferences. If additional work is requested, the firm will bill on an hourly basis at the rate of $225 per hour for firm partners and $185 per hour for firm associates.