By DOTTY NIST
An Oct. 24 proposal by Walton County District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns to have staff bring back information on “head hunter” firms to find a non-interim county attorney yielded no action and the county commission staying with the status quo of an acting county attorney.
Johns brought up the matter at the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting on that date at the South Walton Annex.
After then-county attorney Sidney Noyes had tendered her resignation from the position effective March 12, 2021, the BCC had voted on Feb. 23, 2021, to engage the DeFuniak Springs-based Adkinson Law Firm to serve as acting county attorney until a new county attorney could be hired.
Shortly afterwards a contract with the Adkinson Law Firm was negotiated and approved and remains in effect, with attorney Clay Adkinson continuing to serve as acting county attorney to date.
Legal services contact
The contract contains an open-ended retainer agreement for legal services on a temporary basis.
According to the agreement, Adkinson Law Firm is to “provide legal advice and representation to Walton County on an ongoing and as-needed basis, and shall evaluate County legal services and provide opinions on the orderly and effective operations…”
A scope of services details that the law firm “agrees to serve as legal counsel to Walton County and to be available to provide legal services and counsel to the Board and County Staff on all needed matters and shall further assist in the evaluation and management or legal services for the County to include offering guidance as to the manner in which those services are provided in the future, along with all other mutually agreeable matters.”
The agreement lists compensation for these services at a $10,000-per-month minimum fee and retainer. Legal services covered by this fee and retainer, according to the contract, are attendance at all BCC meetings, Walton County Planning Commission meetings, and staff pre- and post-meetings in connection with BCC sessions. Also covered are individual attorney meetings with each county commissioner preceding each BCC meeting. Included, as well, with the fee and retainer are preparation for all the previously-identified meetings, travel time to and from the meetings, and any and all legal services taking less than 15 minutes.
Legal services not identified as being covered by the fee and retainer that take more than 15 minutes are subject to a rate of $300 per hour.
Discussion on billing for legal services
Questions were raised by members of the public in recent weeks about billing for the law firm and specifically an unpaid amount of almost $600,000 for legal services by Adkinson Law Firm over the past 21 months, including both hourly services and some monthly retainer fees.
Johns brought up a discussion on billing by the law firm, assuring citizens that, although it seemed to be a lot of billing at one time, the billing had been in compliance with the legal services contract. She requested that billing be done on a monthly basis rather than after over such a lengthy period.
Melissa Thomason, Walton County chief financial officer (CFO), responded that she believed Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, and she has worked out a method of getting invoices from the law firm on a monthly basis, so that those could be delivered to her and she would be able to follow up and ensure that the bills carried through in the payment process.
Adkinson also commented that it would be ensured that Thomason gets the invoices regularly. He said that he had previously been told to send those directly to accounts payable for the clerk rather than to the CFO. Adkinson said he was pleased with the resolution of the matter and he did not foresee a problem in the future with the invoices.
Johns thanked Thomason and Adkinson for this update.
County attorney position
Johns credited Adkinson for doing “a fantastic job,” but noted the length of time he had been serving in an interim capacity in the county attorney position (since March 2021). She also observed that he represents at least six different agencies in Walton County. This includes representing the councils of the three cities in Walton County.
“That’s a lot of work to do. I don’t know how he does it, to be honest with you,” Johns said.
The county attorney position has been posted and advertised, but there have been few applicants, with none getting a favorable recommendation from Walton County Human Resources.
Johns said she thought it was time to have staff bring forward information on three or four potential “head hunter” companies, one of which could be tasked with finding “an attorney that will work full time for the BCC,” and estimating that the process would likely take from four to six months or more.
She made a motion to proceed in that manner, and District 3 Commissioner Brad Drake seconded the motion for discussion.
County Commission Chairman Danny Glidewell presented some research about county attorneys comparing the county attorney budget for Walton County with those of neighboring and similar counties. He concluded that Walton County’s county attorney budget was below comparable counties “for what we get,” mentioning more than a dozen lengthy special meetings with executive sessions.
The salary range advertised for the county attorney position is $100,000 to $300,000. Glidewell pointed out that a for county attorney hired for $300,000 a year, retirement insurance, Social Security and other costs would put the expense to the county well over $500,000 a year, not including a severance package, workers’ compensation insurance, or annual paid time off that would be owed to the attorney as a county employee. He had calculated the total cost for an in-house county attorney hired at a $300,000 salary at over $620,000 per year.
“And for comparison,” Glidewell continued, “in 2008, the last time Walton County had an outside firm, we paid $397,000 and change for county attorney services. In 2009 we paid $548,000. Now this is 14 years ago.”
“I’m not complaining about the money,” Johns interjected.
Glidewell continued that in 2010 Walton County had paid $464,000 for these services. “In the last five years,” he said, “we have paid outside firms over $8 million, mainly due to customary use”—a reference to legal work related to Walton County’s ongoing customary use court complaint.
“In 2023,” Glidewell remarked, “Walton County paid one firm over $600,000 per month and consecutive months—600 grand, that was for customary use.”
He recognized Adkinson for his work on the customary use case that had prevented the case from going to trial, saying, “And he has negotiated that settlement, or that customary use, down, or we would have paid…the firms told us it was fixing to be over a million dollars per month per firm, if we had went to court.”
Glidewell added that the customary use issue had been on the BCC meeting agenda eight times in the past eight months.
“And my question is,” Glidewell concluded, “if not Mr. Adkinson, who?”
Johns countered that “we won’t know” until a head hunter company is engaged and brings forward candidates for consideration.
She repeated that she was aware that the acting county attorney works hard and earns the money he is paid.
Johns also discussed costs separate from what Adkinson is paid to fund two assistant county attorneys and other positions in the Office of the County Attorney which she quantified as a total cost of $653,978 per year. “I’m not saying that we don’t need them,” she said of these positions.
Johns said her point was that the BCC needs a “regular attorney” who would be able to devote his time to the commission.
“Somebody make a motion to make him the permanent attorney,” Glidewell suggested, speaking of Adkinson.
Johns agreed to do so, withdrawing her previous motion and substituting the motion that Glidewell has suggested. She clarified that her motion called for Adkinson himself to serve as permanent attorney for the BCC, not his law firm.
Adkinson replied, “Well, I appreciate the support. I don’t want the board to have any illusions. I made it very clear, I am not in a position to take a full-time in-house position for Walton County, close down my private practice, to surrender my any other business interests, none of which have anything to do with the county.”
“But,” he continued, “your single full-time employee project with no moonlighting would create issues there for me, and I’m, as I told the board when I said it originally, I’m not interested in that. I appreciate that, I’m willing to work with this board however you can.”
“When I signed up for this,” Adkinson told the commissioners, “I expected this, frankly, to be somewhere between six to nine months of service. I’ve recognized it’s difficult. The number of open positions in our government attorneys across this state, both for cities and counties, is incredibly high, perhaps has never been higher. It’s a very tough job market.”
He said he was sorry the BCC had not been able to find someone to fill the county attorney position.
“My title is still ‘acting,’ Adkinson added, “but at the end of the day, I’m here to help the board, I’m here to serve the board. I appreciate your comments. I show up for work, I make myself available for these board members whenever you need it.”
“But just to be clear,” Glidewell asked regarding the county attorney position, “you would take it… with us contracting with your law firm.”
Adkinson indicated that he would be open to negotiations for such an agreement. “What I would say,” he continued, “is it would have to be a fair negotiation for both parties.”
Adkinson recalled that when he had met with Walton County Administration in March 2021 about providing county attorney services, “the very simple position was the board was not interested in outside counsel. The board was interested in a full-time, in-house county attorney.”
Johns said she would like to go back to her original motion “to find a head hunter that can find us a permanent attorney.”
However her renewed motion was not seconded and therefore died.
Discussion on legal services was concluded, and the BCC moved on to other business.