The law firm that represents Rutherford County government has come under fire recently.
And it's time to ring the bell again for the county to develop an in-house legal services department.
Hudson, Reed and McCreary isn't in trouble for insider trading this time (although former County Attorney Jim Cope had his suspension for said crime extended for two more years last week).
Now the Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance has asked the Board of Professional Responsibility to take a close look at his old firm—now called Hudson, Reed and McCreary—and its relationships with local land developers.
RNA, with Susan Allen leading the charge, has filed an official complaint with the BPR (they are getting a lot of work from Rutherford County lately) based on BPR Formal Ethics Opinion 81-F-4.
The opinion out of Hamilton County "indicated that a law firm representing land developers in the county cannot also serve as County Attorney because of the potential conflicts of interest that could arise," Allen said.
RNA then researched some of Hudson, Reed and McCreary's clients and found the firm represents several developers, like Clair Vanderschaaf (who partnered with County Mayor Ernest Burgess's Oak Grove Builders to build subdivisions in Rockvale, among other things), Ole South, and a couple subdivisions by Parks.
Oh, wait, they also did work for companies with direct ties to Burgess, like Burgess Properties, Oak Grove Partners, and Rockvale Meadows.
That's not suspicious at all. (That was sarcasm)
The county has needed to create its own legal department for a very long time, but somehow Hudson, Reed and McCreary has managed to hold on.
The county re-upped with Josh McCreary in February to provide advice for a year and litigation coverage for the next four years.
As County Attorney, McCreary wrote his own contract.
He gave himself a base salary of at least $72,000, plus county-provided health insurance and pension benefits. It also says the county will pay other firm staff for working on county projects, which includes $40,000 annually plus benefits for McCreary's secretary.
In all, the county agreed to pay McCreary's firm about $262,000 a year, plus additional hourly rates when he has to represent the county in court.
Every two years when the Legal Services agreement comes up for a vote, the County Commission always cites cost, expertise and other myriad reasons for being the only urban county in the state with a backward, good-ole-boy agreement with a local law firm.
McCreary said basically the same thing to The DNJ about the RNA complaint.
"We have and will continue to provide excellent and cost-effective legal services," he said.
The problem with this argument is there really isn't any way to know how much the County Attorney actually costs. There isn't a line item in the county budget that says how much they charge for other services because it's hidden in each department's budget.
So does it really only cost $262,000 a year? Or is it much more? The problem is we don't know and that isn't an "excellent and cost-effective" way to provide legal services.
At this point, it would be better for the county to hire its own attorney, rather than use the same firm the mayor uses to finalize land deals.
It just looks shady.
It doesn't matter if nothing unethical really happened. It's the appearance of impropriety that taints every opinion Hudson, Reed and McCreary has given in the past 20 years.
Michelle Willard is a freelance journalist who fills her days with social media marketing, politics, true crime, and taking complaints. You can complain to her on Twitter @MichWillard or by email michelle(at)murfreesborovoice.com.