Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

County attorney balks at plan to reshuffle Hernando government

BROOKSVILLE — When County Administrator David Hamilton put out his plan to reshuffle local government last week, he knew there could be some trouble.

The first skirmish has begun.

The County Attorney's Office has just opined in a memo that placing the lawyers under the county administrator, or his designee, would be a conflict of interest, detrimental to the board and prohibited by the Florida Bar Association.

The plan calls for the county attorney, now a stand-alone part of government, to be under a proposed division of administrative services. The county attorney would then answer to whoever directed that division, possibly assistant county administrator Larry Jennings, who has been asked to take on that new role.

While the memo to the County Commission seems to say that Hamilton's plan cannot happen the way it is proposed, Hamilton was not discouraged on Thursday. Rather, he called the memo "an excellent opening argument from the county attorney.''

The question of which master the county attorney serves came up earlier this month when commissioners discussed renewing County Attorney Garth Coller's contract. Assistant county attorney Jon Jouben noted that the attorney cannot work for the administrator and was asked for clarification.

He began working on a formal memo about the issue even before Hamilton released his re-organizational plan.

According to Jouben's memo, the county attorney represents the County Commission and "has a professional obligation to his client, the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners) to exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.''

The Florida Bar describes a conflict of interest as taking place when "an attorney's representation of one client would materially limit his representation of another party or the personal interest of the attorney.''

The county attorney's duty to serve the commission would be "impermissibly impaired'' if he worked for the administrator, Jouben wrote.

"The county attorney's continued employment would be contingent upon the pleasure of the county administrator not the BOCC,'' he wrote. "The county attorney would inevitably be pressured, consciously or unconsciously, to render advice pleasing to the county administrator instead of the county attorney's actual client, the BOCC.''

Under Hamilton's proposal, Jouben wrote, the administrator could limit the commission's access to legal advice, suppress legal opinions that contradict his recommendations, order the attorney not to meet with individual commissioners or order the attorney to reveal what is said in private meetings with commissioners.

"In effect, the BOCC would not have the advice of counsel,'' he wrote.

Jouben also contacted the Florida Bar's ethics hotline and was told that there were several opinions that indicated that Hamilton's proposed plan would violate the Florida Bar requirement of a direct relationship between an attorney and client.

"The BOCC must have access to independent counsel and advice,'' Jouben wrote. "An attorney cannot reasonably be expected to give the BOCC candid, objective advice if doing so could lead to his termination by the county administrator for insubordination.

"It asks too much for an attorney to be able to give objective advice to the BOCC without being materially limited by the attorney's own interest in his continued employment.

With the county attorney reporting directly to the commission, the commissioners also benefit from having an alternative perspective to the county administrator from within the county government," Jouben wrote.

Hamilton said he understands the issues as defined by the Florida Bar but that he had not yet seen anything definitive about what the Florida statute allows. He plans to talk to Coller about that.

He also said several Florida counties have similar arrangements to the one that he proposed and he intends to explore that as well.

One possibility could be that the county could sever the ties between Coller and his assistants. If there is a possible conflict of interest, Coller could answer to the commission and the other attorneys could be considered county staff to handle the day-to-day operations ranging from questions about purchasing to human resource issues.

Hamilton was also troubled by the various "dark scenarios'' that Jouben's memo said could take place if the administrator had control over the attorney. He said his re-organizational memo itself outlined how the idea of the change in structure was to bring more communication to the county staff and make things more transparent, not less.

"It's about sharing. It's about moving forward with issues. It's about putting things where they fit,'' he said.

Hamilton said the memo also raises issues, but he has no intention of hiring outside attorneys to figure out what the county can legally do. The point of the reorganization, he noted, was to save money.

"If we were trying to save money by spending money, we'd be off to a dreadful start,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

County attorney balks at plan to reshuffle Hernando government 10/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. During the most expensive mayoral election ever, St. Petersburg City Council wants to limit PAC money

    Blogs

    ST. PETERSBURG — In front of a large group of red-shirted campaign finance reform supporters, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday started the ball rolling on an ordinance that would limit individual campaign contributions to $5,000 from political action committees.

    A large crowd gathered Thursday to support passage of a controversial measure to limit campaign spending in city elections
  2. Minority business accelerator launch by Tampa chamber to aid black, Hispanic businesses

    Business

    A "minority business accelerator" program was launched Thursday by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce geared toward helping black and Hispanic business owners identify and overcome barriers to grow their companies. The accelerator, known as MBA, will provide participants with business tools to cultivate opportunities …

    Bemetra Simmons is a senior private banker at Wells Fargo, The Private Bank. She is also chair of the new minority business accelerator program for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. [Photo, LinkedIn]
  3. Peter Budaj loves 'vibe' with Lightning

    Blogs

    Two years ago, nobody was willing to give Peter Budaj a shot, the veteran goalie wondering if he'd ever play in the NHL again.

    Peter Budaj signed a two-year extension with the Lightning, worth $1.025 million per year.
  4. A test the Rays haven't passed

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — I have no idea what to think about the Rays. Not a clue.

    Tampa Bay Rays players celebrate their 8-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in St. Petersburg.
  5. Tampa Bay Lightning 2017-18 schedule: Stanley Cup champion Penguins, expansion Golden Knights among the coming attractions

    Lightning Strikes

    The Lightning's season schedule was released Thursday afternoon, and there are plenty of must-see matchups coming to Amalie Arena. Here are the home games with the most intriguing storylines:

    The champs

    (Oct. 12, Oct. 21)

    The two-time defending champion Penguins make two early trips to Tampa. [AP photo]