The Baldwin County Commission Friday issued a 30-day notice to sever its contract for legal services with Blackburn & Conner PC, the same law firm that represents both individual owners and legislative interests of Baldwin County Sewer Service (BCSS), a largely unregulated private utility serving around 19,000 accounts throughout the county.
The resolution to terminate the relationship wasn’t on Friday’s agenda, which was largely scheduled to formally approve next fiscal year’s budget, but County Commissioner Jeb Ball said afterward he “pulled it from the hip.” It was passed unanimously without discussion.
After initially chalking it up simply as a “business decision,” Ball later elaborated, telling Lagniappe county attorney David Conner has been on a trial period since the day Ball and two other new commissioners were sworn in last November. While not naming conflicts with BCSS in particular, Ball noted Conner also recently recused himself from discussions involving a proposed boat launch on the Intracoastal Waterway and a contentious residential development on the Fort Morgan peninsula.
“It was nothing personal … really that’s what it was about, was the conflicts,” Ball said. “David is a good attorney, but he is just a one-man show. He was all by himself and over the past 10 months we realized we need more bodies, different lawyers doing different things.”
Ball said the commission will likely discuss successors in a work session sometime within the next month, but in the meantime, will retain its relationship with Stone Crosby PC, whose attorneys Brad Hicks and Shawn Alves have served as the commission’s counsel in some litigation as well as in matters from which Conner recused.
Blackburn & Conner PC was initially hired on Nov. 10, 2010, at the very first meeting involving commissioners first elected or re-elected in the 2010 campaign cycle. According to the minutes from the meeting, newly elected commissioners Tucker Dorsey and Bob James joined long-term Commissioner Frank Burt in advocating for the abolishment of the county’s in-house legal department in favor of hiring outside counsel. Dorsey has been an employee and business partner of BCSS managing partner Clarence Burke for years and continued to serve in that capacity throughout his time on the commission.
The minutes from that meeting reflect no discussion of the decision to hire Blackburn & Conner or that other firms or attorneys were ever considered. But Commissioner Skip Gruber, who remains the only commissioner from 2010 still serving, voted against the move.
At the time, he pointed to an internal financial analysis of the four-person legal department putting its costs at $85 per hour, whereas Blackburn & Conner’s contract guaranteed the firm $225 per hour plus certain fees and other costs.
According to the county’s online checkbook, Blackburn & Conner PC have been paid at least $3.1 million since late 2010, an average of $344,000 per year.
Then-commissioners Dorsey and James argued the move was for efficiency, with Dorsey claiming he’d studied the county for “four months” to determine it didn’t “need to have legal services every single day of the year.” Further, Dorsey claimed he’d “known Mr. Conner and Mr. [Daniel] Blackburn for years and they are some of the top attorneys in the county.” Dorsey also said the elimination of staff attorneys would save about $300,000 per year.
But as soon as two weeks after their hiring, at the Nov. 23, 2010 commission meeting, Daniel Blackburn and David Conner adjourned into executive session to address ongoing conflicts of interest between their firm and the county.
In fact, a review of approved minutes from the first year of Blackburn & Conner’s contract reveals at least 16 instances where Conner admitted conflicts, nearly one each month, either involving BCSS, electric utilities, property developers or the county’s $32 million purchase of the South Alabama Mega Site. There, Blackburn was one of the principals of Catawba Land Company LLC, which was paid $6,312,500 by the county for its portion of the 3,009-acre property.
As recently as Sept. 3, Conner addressed public concerns about his conflicts, when Fairhope resident and blog publisher Paul Ripp appeared before the County Commission to ask the attorney to define his relationship between BCSS and the county. Conner said he has made a practice of recusing from all matters relating to the utility.
But since December 2018, minutes indicate Conner has recused himself from other matters including: an undisclosed issue in executive session; the Seaglade at St. Andrews Bay project on Fort Morgan Road, citing Blackburn & Conner’s representation of Alabama Capital LLC; an application before the Planning & Zoning Commission for the Plantations at Fish River LLC, citing Blackburn & Conner’s previous representation of Harold Sherman, the owner; and a discussion involving Canaan Place, Phase 2, citing an undisclosed conflict.
Gruber said the county does indeed need legal guidance daily and believes it would be prudent to explore the idea of revamping a staff legal department.
“At this point we’re going to have to make a replacement and it will probably be in our next work session,” he said. “But I would like to bring up a staff attorney. We need someone available to us to handle day-to-day happenings — to review applications, contracts and documents, to answer common legal questions — rather than go to a private firm. It’s something I would like to look at again.”
While Gruber acknowledged he was against the legal department’s abolishment in 2010, he said he was not interested in “running over the past,” rather, “I just want to move forward and provide the best service we can to the citizens of the county.”
Ball said it’s premature to speculate how the county may proceed, but the discussion may include contracts with several attorneys.
“We’ll look at other avenues, maybe one for planning and zoning, one for [code enforcement], one for the commission … we’re just trying to do everything we can to be more efficient because we don’t want to keep the citizens of Baldwin County waiting on everything,” Ball said.
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