Council hires lawyer for first time

The Brown County Commissioners employ a “county attorney.”

The Brown County Fire Protection District Merit Board, the Brown County Area Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, the Brown County Health Board and the Brown County Regional Sewer District all contract with attorneys, too.

Last week, the Brown County Council got an attorney, as well. Council President David Critser signed a contract with Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Jake German on March 27.

German also is the attorney who serves the commissioners.

Critser said “county attorney” is a misnomer and that was one of the reasons he signed a separate agreement.

The agreement the firm signed with the commissioners in 2013 says that the commissioners are the client. However, the highway department, the parks department and the auditor’s office all have been able to ask questions of German under the commissioners’ $3,000-per-month contract, according to Biddle and representatives of those offices.

If advice goes beyond a question or two, that’s when the county office or board might want to think about getting a separate attorney, Biddle said.

Biddle said the commissioners mainly use German, based in Indianapolis, for questions about human resources and for legal documents like bond resolutions. When it comes to local ordinances, local attorneys are more suited to do that kind of work, she said.

Hired

Critser told the council that one of the reasons for their special meeting March 27 was to talk about hiring an attorney, which he said the council had never done. One local attorney in the audience suggested advertising the job.

But then Critser revealed that he had already signed a $1,000-per-month agreement with German earlier that day.

Two council members said they supported Critser’s actions and the other four said nothing.

The council had just come out of an executive session to discuss possible misconduct — its second such session in eight days. Critser said he was in a situation where he needed questions answered and that’s why he signed the contract without a vote. He said he also appreciated that Barnes & Thornburg is a large firm with many attorneys, because at one point he had three attorneys in a teleconference.

Brown County Auditor Beth Mulry said she also sometimes has questions that need to be answered right away instead of waiting for permission from the commissioners to talk to the county attorney.

Jeanne Skillman said she understands the need for an attorney but she doesn’t understand why the council would hire someone from the same firm the commissioners are using because of possible conflicts of interest.

Critser said he doesn’t foresee a situation that might put the council and commissioners in legal conflict. The contract he signed says if that would happen, the firm would ask for permission to represent both of them, but if both didn’t agree, the firm would represent the commissioners.

A couple other audience members expressed surprise that so many boards had lawyers.

“It’s the day we live in,” Critser said.

Who’s on what

For decades, “county attorney” has been the term used for the attorney the commissioners hire, though the scope of that person’s work has varied, according to Brown County Democrat archives.

A story in 1976 said the county attorney “not only provides legal counsel to the commissioners and the county council but is often given wide latitude to provide other advisory services and handle many details on behalf of the elected officials.”

County Attorney David Woods was described in a 1987 story as representing the county and commissioners.

Kurt Young served as county attorney from 1999 to 2004 and from 2009 to the end of 2012, when the commissioners hired Barnes & Thornburg to replace him. He responded to requests from county leaders and employees regarding county business. But he was not the only attorney the county was paying during his last stint because of conflicts of interest in litigation regarding a zoning case, the fire district and an election challenge.

A few boards which have their own attorneys are currently involved in lawsuits.

The Brown County Health Department, board or employees are parties in at least four open lawsuits in federal and county courts, according to online court records. The health board and health department employees have been represented by John M. Reames of Greenwood since 2016.

Brown County Area Plan Commission Attorney David Schilling is representing the county in a civil case in Brown Circuit Court involving alleged zoning ordinance violations, according to online court records.

The plan commission has had its own attorney for several decades.

Schilling also works in Monroe County government, where he is one of three attorneys in the Monroe County Attorneys’ Office which serves government offices and employees. Schilling specializes in the planning, zoning and building departments, highway department and stormwater management in that county, while the other two attorneys cover other parts of county government.

The Brown County Regional Sewer District Board uses Wanda Jones as its attorney, but she is not paid with public money. Board President Evan Werling said he pays Jones out of his own pocket for the work she doesn’t donate.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.