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School board lawyer candidates down to two, prompting new search

TAMPA — Wanted: A school board attorney for the eighth-largest district in the nation.

Hillsborough County has been trying to hire one since Tom Gonzalez announced in January that he will continue to handle litigation for the district, but not advise the elected board.

A committee was formed but only three candidates applied.

Now the list is down to two. After a lengthy televised discussion at the June 11 board meeting, former Pinellas schools attorney James A. Robinson pulled out.

"It would be my desire to enter into an attorney-client-relationship with the board, assuming I were selected, without such controversy over the selection process," Robinson wrote in an e-mail.

At a committee meeting Tuesday, four School Board members concluded they will need to re-open the search. A vote will be taken at a special board meeting June 25.

The June 11 discussion included harsh criticism from board member Susan Valdes, who said she was disappointed the vacancy was listed on Vendor Bid, a bulletin board for contractors who are registered with the district, and not in mass media newspapers. Nor was the job advertised with legal organizations, she said.

Jean Bowman, the district's general manager of procurement, pointed out Tuesday that the job also was posted on DemandStar, which reaches a national audience.

And member Candy Olson noted the publicity that surrounded Gonzalez' decision.

"A person who lives in this part of Florida and did not know that this was coming open may not have the level of awareness of this community that we would want to see," she said.

Nevertheless, no one at the table was happy with only two applicants to consider.

It's a hard job to fill, district officials say, because school board law is a narrow specialty and most qualified attorneys already work for districts.

In addition, it's not a full-time job, as Gonzalez will continue to represent the school district administration.

Gonzalez has been a part of the district's legal team since the 1970s, when he worked for longtime school district attorney Crosby Few.

In 2004, when Few retired, he recommended Gonzalez to take his place, and the board hired him with little discussion.

Gonzalez submitted his resignation in April 2012 amid a controversy over the district's policy on outside speakers, but agreed to remain on board until a replacement could be found.

He re-activated his resignation in January, soon after chairwoman April Griffin went against his advice and moved, unsuccessfully, to hire an independent auditor. Gonzalez said Griffin's action was not why he resigned, as such disagreements happen from time to time in public sector law.

While it's not unusual for a district to have multiple attorneys, those arrangements tend to involve in-house legal staffs. In the Pinellas district, a seven-person staff includes three attorneys.

"No one is set up that way, and that may be why we're struggling to get a qualified attorney to come on board," said board member Cindy Stuart.

Griffin said she hopes the two applicants will re-apply — and Robinson too, although she added that contentious board meetings happen from time to time.

A workshop on the budget will take place before the June 25 board meeting, giving members more than one opportunity to consider their options.

"We board members may have to take a role in picking up the phone and calling some people," Griffin said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 2266-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

School board lawyer candidates down to two, prompting new search 06/18/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 5:58pm]
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