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Looking for legal advice in wrong place

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By BEN CARLSON

Column as I see ’em …
The next time the Anderson County Board of Health wants legal assistance from the county attorney, she should tell it to go pound sand.
A strong response, yes, but understandable given the way the health director spent over $60,000 on new furniture for the new health department building without so much as soliciting a bid.
Had he checked with the county attorney — the person hired and elected by the people who pay the health director’s salary — he would have known in no uncertain terms that the furniture purchase required a bid.
Apparently not wanting to get caught up in all that is required to solicit bids, he instead went to the state board of health and talked around the issue long enough until he got the answer he was apparently looking for.
Sounds eerily similar to the way he and his willing accomplices on the health board obtained permission to build the new health building, but that’s another story.
Oh, the way he went about skirting the need to bid was technically legal, according to a statute that allows him to seek an opinion from the state board, but it certainly wasn’t the way the county attorney would have advised.
The issue surfaced during a board of health meeting earlier this month, and board member and Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway immediately made a motion that the furniture the director had already agreed to buy be put out for bid.
He subsequently requested an opinion from County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis.
Lewis responded, saying that if she were advising the fiscal court, she would have recommended that the furniture be bid out based on the state’s procurement statutes.
However, she said that the statute allowed the health director to seek advice from state health officials, who told him that he didn’t need to seek bids because, individually, none of the furniture items exceeded the $20,000 threshold required for bids.
That’s true, but using that remarkably loose definition, very little of what is purchased with public funds would require a bid.
Consider this: Each year the fiscal court accepts bids for T-shirts supplied to youth sports participants. Of course the cost isn’t $20,000, but by requiring bids the fiscal court is ensuring the lowest cost to taxpayers.
Using the health director’s new-found logic, even if the shirts totaled more than $20,000, individually they are well less and therefore do not require bids.
See?
The bottom line here is that had common sense and concern for public funds been applied to purchasing $63,000 worth of new furniture, the health director would have gladly solicited for bids.
He didn’t, which, given how cavalierly he has spent the health board nearly into insolvency in the past three years, doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

What does come as a surprise is just how loose the health board is when it comes to how the director spends money.
Not only did the board (aside from new member Harold Todd who brought it up) seem oblivious to the furniture fiasco, it’s a safe bet it has little if any clue exactly how he spends taxpayer dollars.
Having sat through a number of health meetings, it’s clear that unlike the fiscal court, the board doesn’t review any form of a bills list, just a summary of the department’s budget.
That’s amazing. If the goal is to be open and honest about using public funds, generating a list of purchases for the health board’s approval should be a given.
What’s instead a given is that I’m keenly interested to spend an hour or three taking a look at the health department’s checking account for the past year, and while I’m at it, take a peek at the health board’s checkbook, too.
As of this writing I’m preparing an open records request to do just that.
Will I find anything amiss? I doubt it. The health department is audited annually and generally passes without a problem.
But just for giggles, I think I’ll take a look at the books anyway.
Stay tuned.