Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

New attorney looks forward to advising Hillsborough School Board

TAMPA — Sitting about five rows in at a recent Hillsborough County School Board meeting, Jim Porter heard it all.

He heard member Susan Valdes upbraid staff over unsigned contracts. He heard Chairwoman April Griffin state her case for pursuing a sex education grant. He heard member Stacy White say morality should be taught in the home.

And he heard allegations of stall tactics when two members moved to study the district's own sex education offerings before exploring the grant.

He enjoyed every minute of it, he said. And that's a good thing, as Porter just became the board's new attorney.

He'll be paid $8,000 a month, for now, to advise the board at a time when some members want to provide more oversight in a district led by powerful superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"I'm just a big nerd," said Porter, 49, and a former assistant county attorney. "I love the process."

During that tense School Board meeting moments, "I thought, 'Okay, we have seven people who have been elected to office, all with different ideas and here they are, duking it out in public like they have to do under the Sunshine Law,' " he said.

The occasional sniping might make some people uncomfortable. "But that's the nature of the system," he said. "Everybody sees how the sausage is made. As a citizen, I always think that when things run too smoothly, that's when you have to worry."

Porter was not among the first round of applicants for the job, a new position created when longtime attorney Tom Gonzalez decided to limit his role to representing the administration and overseeing litigation.

Porter thought the board was looking for a specialist in school law. His experience is primarily in land use and zoning.

But after the district re-issued its request for qualifications, he realized it wanted someone with expertise in elected office and governance issues.

"That's when I felt like I could offer them what they need," said Porter, who is board-certified by the Florida Bar in city, county and local government law.

High emotions aren't new to him, he said. He's seen neighborhoods torn apart on the question of whether to allow an apartment complex or a shopping center on land that used to be somebody's pristine view.

"Like land, but in a different way, you are talking about people's children," he said. "And that causes a lot of emotion."

Porter's hiring took 18 months, if measured from the first time Gonzalez announced his desire to stop advising the board. That decision came as the board struggled to settle a controversy about outside speakers at the schools. Critics of the district focused on the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and the issue dominated the latter part of every Tuesday night board meeting.

Gonzalez stayed on the job throughout the year, then differed with Griffin in January over her attempt to hire an independent auditor. That move failed, but it cemented Gonzalez's decision.

Since then, the search progressed in fits and starts. The process itself became controversial, as Valdes complained that the search wasn't wide enough.

Board members gave their nod to Porter, who was with the Adams and Reese law firm, on Oct. 15. He said he looks forward to guiding the board "to do what they want to and have to do" under the law.

"I have a healthy respect for any person who runs for office, is seated and then must serve the constituents," he said. "It takes a lot of courage."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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