PRINCETON — Gibson County Commissioners approved a contract with attorneys doing legal work for the repeal of zoning and creation of solar and wind turbine licensing ordinances Tuesday.
The contract for professional services provided by Josh Claybourn of Jackson Kelly law firm and for Grant Swartzentruber of Swartzentruber and Brown law firm are capped at a total $20,000.
While the contract was approved Tuesday night, it apparently covers weeks of work done prior to the vote.
Gibson County Commissioner Mary Key questioned the contract, asking whether the work was done prior to the contract for their services.
Swartzentruber said they were present at the January meeting, and addressed commissioners before they voted to start the process of rescinding zoning.
Key questioned who hired them, noting previous commissioners didn’t hire them.
“Yes, I understand that,” Swartzentruber said. “The decision is whether or not you want to hire us or otherwise.”
Claybourn said he didn’t believe he had done any work for the county prior to new commissioners being sworn in.
Key said she believed work was done prior to the contract.
“I believe the proceeding is whether we want to contractually work with these gentlemen,” said Board of Commissioners President Warren Fleetwood.
Commissioner Ken Montgomery offered a motion to approve the contract, with Fleetwood offering a second. It passed 2-1 with Key dissenting.
“I have a question about the Open Door Law about previous work as of this moment,” Key said.
“I would recommend you contact them,” Fleetwood said.
Swartzentruber’s invoice of $5,175 submitted Feb. 19 details work from Nov. 20, 2020 through Feb. 18, 2021.
Claybourn’s invoice of $8,759.34 submitted March 4 details work from Dec. 16, 2020 through Feb. 24, 2021.
County Attorney Jason Spindler said Thursday that both attorneys are striking charges in their invoices to the county for services prior to Jan. 1, 2021, when the two new commissioners were seated, which reduces the invoice submitted by Swartzentruber by approximately $2,600 and the invoice submitted by Claybourn by approximately $4,000.
The action to reduce their invoices came after more questions about who was authorized to retain their services.
The invoices show communication with the two new commissioners before they took their oath of office, and with former Gibson County Attorney Jim McDonald.
McDonald said Thursday that he did not represent to Swartzentruber that the county would engage his services for the zoning repeal, because he didn’t know whether he would remain county attorney under the new administration, and he knew that Swartzentruber represented litigants adverse to the county.
Spindler said Swartzentruber and Claybourn had separate conversations with Fleetwood and Montgomery before and after the two new commissioners took office Jan. 1, 2021, concluding that they had a majority support of commissioners to represent the county in the zoning repeal process.
Spindler said the two attorneys submitted contracts for their services in mid-January that were likely circulated to comissioners.
Fleetwood said that the new contract, capped at $20,000, is still much less cost than the nearly $300,000 in legal fees the county incurred in forming a zoning ordinance.
Those fees from Kahn, Dees, Donovan and Kahn were in a contract signed by sitting commissioners in February 2017 and renewed in October 2019. Commissioners initiated exploration of zoning in the fall of 2017 and dropped it in early 2018, then reactivated the process in January 2020 before passing the zoning ordinance in September 2020.
Fleetwood and Montgomery both campaigned on a promise to repeal zoning, and Fleetwood said when he won the election, he “spent countless hours researching information” on his own. “Prior to running I was hitting he ground calling people, talking to anyone I could who was familiar with our situation,” he said. “I really felt like I left no rocks unturned…I don’t offer any apology for that, nor do I stand on a high tower for that. It is what it is,” he said, but questioned why Key would be concerned about someone working that hard.
Key said Thursday that she did not receive a copy of the proposed contract for Swartzentruber until Feb. 15 and didn’t have a proposed contract for Claybourn until March 2. “I don’t see how the county can pay them for services provided before March 2,” she said.
“To me, if they (commissioners Fleetwood and Montgomery) were going to hire them, why didn’t they do it at our first meeting, the first time the three commissioners could meet as a body to approve a contract?”
Fleetwood said he studied the county zoning ordinances and “I found them to not meet our needs.” He said the new safety ordinances up for a second reading this month for wind turbine and solar energy projects more fully address setbacks and increase fees, among other provisions more beneficial to the county.
“I think for her to have contention with anything related to safety or the extent of my work is troublesome,” he said.
“As far as me working on it myself, I definitely researched and did a lot of work on it prior to taking office. Everything I put into it, all my time and effort, to me it kind of shows people, or I hope it shows people, that I was working on this without payment and was committed to the process.”