Wednesday, September 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas leaders heap praise on County Attorney Jewel White

CLEARWATER — The first public job review of County Attorney Jewel White became a laudatory meeting that brought the chief lawyer a 3 percent pay raise.

The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee, composed of the seven county commissioners and five constitutional officers, conducted its first review of White after appointing her to replace her former boss, Jim Bennett, who retired in May after three decades.

Before spending 30 minutes going through a slide show of her office, White described her hiring as "a very wise decision" by the elected officials. For the past several months, White said, she has been meeting with officials and other agency leaders to gauge any deficiencies in legal services.

"The entire management of the office has changed," she said. "Everybody either has a new role or a new manager."

White’s shuffling of the office deck included promoting several lawyers to managers and shifting others to represent different agencies and departments. Other changes include creating new performance reviews for employees and updating the office’s policy manual.

"It really needs to be brought into the 21st century," said White, whose salary was about $213,000.

White did bring some baggage to the job after having such close ties to Bennett. Three commissioners, Charlie Justice, John Morroni and Dave Eggers, asked White whether she improved how the office responded to media requests. White said she has done that but hasn’t crafted a new policy.

"I think there’s been a lot of new energy over in that office," Morroni said.

Clerk of Courts Ken Burke thanked White for her work, but also encouraged her and her staff to be more proactive in notifying elected officials about national legal trends that could impact Pinellas County.

"Don’t be afraid to contact the constitutionals," Burke told White.

Until November 2016, county commissioners had the sole authority over the county attorney.

Voters approved a charter amendment to create the Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee to change the way the county picks its top legal adviser. In addition to commissioners, the committee includes the sheriff, clerk of the court, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and tax collector.

Before Bennett retired, several perks that he had in his contract drew ire with several commissioners: He belonged to the state pension system, but since 2008 the county also contributed $201,000 to his tax-deferred personal retirement account on top of that pension. His contract also called for a $9,000-a-year car allowance — or $750 a month. That’s an extra $66,000 Bennett has received since 2008.

White landed similar perks: She gets a $500 car allowance each month, and taxpayers will contribute $18,000 annually to her tax-deferred personal retirement account on top of her pension. None of the officials asked about the perks.

Commission Chairwoman Janet Long negotiated the contract and said the perks are similar to what White could command in private practice. Long also negotiated to delay White’s 3 percent raise that other employees received in October.

The committee voted unanimously Tuesday to award the raise, boosting White’s pay to about $220,000 annually.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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