COVINGTON — Newton county’s effort to hire in-house legal counsel faltered Tuesday night when commissioners rejected a contract counter offer from attorney Megan Martin, who has represented the county for five years.
The Board of Commissioners 3-2 decision leaves the county without a candidate for in-house legal representation. In the meantime, the county’s contract with Jarrard & Davis, the firm that employed Martin, remains in force. Martin is no longer with the firm, and Jarrard & Davis attorney Patrick D. Jaugstetter provided legal counsel at the board’s meeting Tuesday night.
Commission Chairman Marcello Banes has the authority to veto the board's vote; however, as of Thursday Martin had withdrawn her counter offer. Banes said Thursday he had been planning to veto the vote prior to Martin calling off negotiations. It would take four votes to override a veto.
Newton County entered into contract negotiations with Martin in August after she was named the finalist following a six-month search for candidates for in-house legal counsel. At that time the board voted 3-2 to negotiate a six-month contract with Martin. Commissioners had agreed in December 2020 to move to in-house legal counsel.
Tuesday night’s vote on Martin’s contract came after District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson made a motion to accept the counter-offer with the proviso that former county attorney Tommy Craig be hired as assistant county attorney; District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders seconded the motion. Henderson argued that Craig, who was fired by the Board of Commissioners in 2015 under a cloud of controversy, has continued to represent the Board of Assessors and the Sheriff’s Office and has experience that would be beneficial on several county projects.
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan offered a substitute motion to accept Martin’s counter-offer of an annual salary of $195,000 for two years, subject to ironing out some issues with benefits. District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards seconded Cowan’s substitute motion.
“At this point, we’ve got an issue of to accept or reject the counter offer,” said Cowan, adding, “That’s not to say that there’s not any merit to what Commissioner Henderson has said. Mr. Craig is already working with the Sheriff’s Office and is already on the county payroll.”
During discussion of the motion, Henderson aired his grievances against Martin related to a forensic audit in 2016 that implicated Henderson in financial mismanagement of the Nelson Heights Community Center.
The audit also found fault with former county attorney Craig, alleging he mishandled the county’s now-abandoned reservoir project. The audit alleged that Craig misled commissioners on the likelihood that the reservoir would be permitted in order to continue to bill the county for work on the project.
The FBI closed its investigation into the audit in April, ending any potential for prosecution. Henderson said Martin was “supposed to write a letter saying my name had been cleared,” but she never wrote the letter.
“We’ve got to have an attorney who will stand up for what’s right … we do not have that at this point,” said Henderson.
Sanders also criticized Martin, saying she doesn’t treat all commissioners equally and that she is controlled by forces outside the BOC. Sanders cited Martin for failing to advise her against holding exercise classes at the West Side Precinct, even though Martin was aware Sanders was conducting the classes. Instead, Chairman Marcello Banes sent Sanders a cease and desist notice, warning her about potential liabilities and violations related to the classes.
“As a person, attorney Martin is great,” said Sanders. “ … but as far as representing the county as herself, as one person, I don’t think she’s capable” without the backing of Jarrard & Davis.
District Commissioner Demond Mason called on commissioners to deal with the substitute motion on the floor, which was to accept Martin’s counter-offer. The motion failed 3-2, with Henderson, Sanders and Mason opposed.
At that point, Henderson withdrew his motion to hire Craig as assistant county attorney, which was approved 4-1, sending the Board of Commissioners back to square one in its efforts to hire an in-house attorney. Cowan cast the dissenting vote.