Hillsborough Commission narrows its county attorney search to two
Two Tampa lawyers with experience in local government made the final cut to succeed ousted former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee Tuesday.
Charles R. "Chip" Fletcher, city attorney for the City of Tampa from 2008 to 2011, received supportive votes from six of seven county commissioners to proceed to a series of one-on-one interviews Wednesday. Jim Porter, who left the county attorney's office as a chief assistant county attorney after 14 years in 2004, also heads to the final round of interviews.
Commissioners are expected to make a hiring decision Oct. 3.
Porter, considered an early favorite for the job, barely made the final cut after interviews with five finalists Tuesday as information about circumstances preceding his departure from the county circulated among commissioners in the past week. Each of the seven commissioners were asked to submit their top two choices after a series of nearly hour-long interviews with the finalists.
Porter collected three votes initially, the same as Henry G. "Hank" Ennis III, one of eight current managing attorneys in the office, who oversees legal matters related to the county's utilities and environmental management. In a tie-break vote, Porter got four votes to three for Ennis, with commissioners Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Les Miller supporting Ennis.
The other finalists were Joseph P. Patner, currently the head of civil litigation for the city of St. Petersburg, and William A. Spillias, chief attorney/senior attorney for the Florida Department of Financial Services' Division of Rehabilitation & Liquidation.
The county attorney's job has been vacant since June 2011, when commissioners dismissed Lee for a variety of perceived misdeeds, including blessing an unpublicized 1 percent raise for herself and former County Administrator Pat Bean. Her ouster came shortly after she acknowledged having lunch with former County Commissioner Kevin White, now in prison for accepting bribes, then involved in litigation with the county.
Fletcher, 43, currently works of counsel to the Gray Robinson firm, where he landed after former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio left office. He serves as general counsel to the county's public bus agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
He was previously a partner with the Shumaker Loop & Kendrick law firm and shareholder with de la Parte & Gilbert. He also has an environmental engineering degree and worked briefly in that profession. The only commissioner who did not support him moving forward was Al Higginbotham.
Porter, 48, has been a partner with the Adams and Reese law firm since 2010 and left his county attorney's office to join the Ruden McClosky firm, where he also was a partner. In each case he worked mostly in governmental affairs and land-use, the latter being the area he oversaw while with the county.
Porter faced the most pointed questions Tuesday, initiated by interim county attorney Don Odom. Odom asked him to discuss the relevance of accusations he faced while at the county of treating some employees poorly. His boss at the time, former County Attorney Emmy Acton, was facing allegations of running a hostile workplace and some employees said Porter, too, was abusive. Acton subsequently stepped down.
The allegations are 10 years old and were largely anonymous, Porter noted, making it difficult for him to respond at the time and now. He noted that he received outstanding evaluations and was twice voted manager of the year by the entire office. He disclosed news stories and a preliminary audit about the allegations as part of the application process.
"I've certainly learned a lot from those experiences and I've certainly matured a lot," he said Tuesday.
The County Attorney's Office currently has 57 employees, including 34 lawyers, and a $7 million budget.