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Hillsborough School Board narrows attorney candidates to three

TAMPA — In the last stages of a difficult search, the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday narrowed its pool of attorney candidates to three widely known Tampa names.

In the running are Steven A. Anderson, who has represented several public boards; James J. Porter, a former assistant county attorney; and David B. Singer, formerly of the mega-firm Holland & Knight.

Whoever is hired will enter territory uncharted in Hillsborough, where the nation's eighth-largest school district has until now looked to two attorneys for counsel: Crosby Few, who died in 2010 after a career that began in 1965, and Thomas Gonzalez, who has served the district since 1975.

While some litigation is referred to outside lawyers, Gonzalez has represented both the administration and the School Board for as long as most members can remember.

In April 2012, after a tense public exchange about outside speakers on campus, Gonzalez said he no longer wanted to represent the board.

He agreed to stay on until he could be replaced, something board members said would be difficult and expensive.

Then in January, after publicly disagreeing with chairwoman April Griffin about her proposal for an independent auditor, he reactivated his resignation. Both times he said the disagreements were not the reason.

Hiring a second attorney has indeed been difficult. School law is a rare specialty and the job does not include litigation, which lawyers often find most lucrative.

The first time the district advertised for the position, three people applied, including James A. Robinson III, a former School Board attorney in Pinellas. After viewing a heated board discussion about the search, Robinson withdrew.

The district re-advertised and this time got a total of seven candidates, including Robinson, who later dropped out again.

Meeting on Tuesday, board members acknowledged confusion about how to evaluate the candidates. They voted twice on whether to re-interview all six or cull the pool. They finally agreed on the three finalists:

• Anderson, former counsel for the Tampa Port Authority, the Tampa Sports Authority, the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office and the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.

• Porter, an expert on land use, government contracts and procurement who worked with the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office from 1990 to 2004 and was the chief assistant county attorney for its land use section;

• Singer, also a specialist in taking cases before government boards and an adviser in 2010 to the transit advocacy group Moving Hillsborough Forward.

Board members discussed how the new lawyer will interact with Gonzalez and the board itself. "You can have a lawyer who simply files your documents and goes to court," said board member Candy Olson, who was chair the first time Gonzalez resigned. "Or you can have a lawyer who gives you more advice and is engaged in processes."

Board member Stacy White said he wants one-on-one advice and guidance in everything from education law to parliamentary procedure at meetings that sometimes last until 11 p.m.

And the lawyer must be able to work with Gonzalez. "I don't want there to be conflict between two attorneys," board member Cindy Stuart said.

The board had hoped to make its selection by Sept. 24. But, with time short and a workshop needed to discuss interview questions, members voted Tuesday to relax that timetable.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough School Board narrows attorney candidates to three 09/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 12:05am]
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