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County Contracting Authority - Constitutional Avoidance

Robbins v. Cleburne County Commission, [Ms. 1180106, Jan. 31, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Bryan, Mendheim, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Shaw, J., concurs in the result; and Sellers, J., dissents) affirms the Cleburne Circuit Court’s order dismissing a breach of contract action filed by the former county engineer after the County Commission denied the validity of a renewal option in his employment agreement.

Home rule is not extended to counties. Consequently, a county commission’s “‘contracting authority extends only so far as is authorized by the legislature ....’” Ms. *5, quoting Cooper v. Houston Cty., 40 Ala. App. 192, 195, 112 So. 2d 496, 498 (1959). Two statutes potentially authorized the contract – a general law providing that a county may enter into an employment contract with a county engineer “for a period of time not to exceed five years,’” Ms. *5, and a local law, authorizing Cleburne County to hire a “county engineer who shall serve at the pleasure of the County Commission.” Ms. *6.

In approving a contract with the county engineer for a period of five years with a one-year renewal option, the county exceeded its authority under either law. Ms. *6. The general law expressly limited a contract of employment of a county engineer to five years. The local law authorized at-will employment of a county engineer, leading the Court to hold that “[a] government body authorized to fill a position on an at-will basis may not contract away its power of removal.” Ms. *10.

Citing its “duty to avoid constitutional questions unless essential for the proper disposition of the case,” Ms. *6, quoting Chisholm v. Jefferson Cty., 954 So. 2d 1058, 1063 (Ala. 2006)(internal quotation marks omitted), the Court declined to decide whether the general or local law applied.

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