A Wyoming lawmaker who works as a county attorney helped defeat a bill that would have given county commissioners more control over legal advice.
Critics of House Bill 181, which would have allowed county commissioners to hire outside counsel rather than rely solely on the elected county attorney, argued the bill undermined the authority of county attorneys. It would have allowed commissioners to “cherry-pick and find a legal opinion that they’re looking for,” said Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, who works as Teton County deputy attorney.
Current law allows commissions to hire outside attorneys only when the county attorney is absent or refuses to act.
Conflicts between commissions and attorneys sometimes arise, most recently in Johnson County.
Last summer, Johnson County Assessor Cindy Rogers said she didn't think County Attorney Kenneth DeCock had given her sufficient legal advice on a proposed Lake De Smet water lease. She hired a Cheyenne firm to help.
DeCock sent a cease-and-desist order to Rogers, saying if she continued to obtain outside counsel, she could be prosecuted and removed from public office.
Bill sponsor Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said his bill had nothing to do with the conflict in Johnson County.
On the House floor Feb. 1, Gingery said at the heart of the county attorney tradition is independence.
“The attorney can really say what they’re really thinking. ‘Listen guys, this is a bad idea,’” Gingery said. “You give that opinion knowing they can’t fire you.”
But Madden believed his bill would have smoothed over management of counties, of which commissions are in charge.
“I look at it as a deal where they’d use it [hire an outside attorney] once every couple years,” he said.
HB 181 is headed for further study in the interim period between legislative sessions, in which committees of lawmakers meet monthly to tackle issues.
Madden withdrew another measure, House Bill 88, after he decided it wouldn’t solve attorney and commission conflicts over the long term.
That bill would have allowed county commissions to choose to appoint county attorneys, who are currently elected in all but the most populous Wyoming counties.