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Gulfport passes on full-time lawyer for now

Gulfport may not get a full-time lawyer any time soon. Late last week a City Council majority decided against replacing the city's part-time lawyer with full-time counsel.

The decision came during a special 2 1/2-hour workshop to discuss the proposal. The council agreed, however, to ask the acting city manager to approach the St. Petersburg Bar Association about conducting a study of the city's legal needs.

Mayor Mike Yakes, who had supported hiring a full-time city attorney, said the democratic process worked.

"It's all good,'' he said.

Council member Michele King isn't as sanguine.

"I thought there were valid reasons for changing the way we handled our legal department, and I'm disappointed that the mayor and I were the only two that could envision it being different,'' she said.

"Most of the argument was if we could afford it or not, and it didn't seem to matter that we were already paying it.''

King said her research showed that on an average since 2004, the city's legal business cost $175,000 a year. She said part-time city attorney Timothy Driscoll made a base salary of $54,000 a year. With extra litigation, she said, Driscoll was paid an average of about $110,000 a year. On the other hand, King said, a full-time position with benefits would have cost the city "$120,000 max.''

Even a full-time attorney would have to consult other lawyers, which would mean additional money, council member Mary Stull said during an interview.

"Quite frankly, I don't know if we have enough legal business to occupy an attorney full time and also, I'm concerned about the cost involved,'' she said.

Stull said she was pleased when lawyer and Gulfport resident James D. Thaler Jr. offered the services of the St. Petersburg Bar.

"I really feel that we need to do a study,'' said council member Judy Ryerson.

"It's not something that we need to jump into. We're getting all kinds of figures thrown at us about what it would cost.''

Driscoll's position and work have been controversial. He has represented the city since 1990, but in 2005 he stepped down from a zoning issue after some residents complained that he had not defended the city aggressively enough. Later that year, council member Bob Worthington called for a vote on whether the city should replace Driscoll. The lawyer retained his job. Worthington now says he has no problem with Driscoll's work.

"And throughout all of this, no one on council could say that Mr. Driscoll isn't doing his job,'' he said.

Worthington said he knows of no other area city the size of Gulfport that has a full-time attorney. Gulfport has 13,000 residents.

He said Tom Minkoff — who campaigned briefly for Pinellas County property appraiser and is campaign manager for state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat who's trying to retain his District 55 House seat — met with him and other council members individually to offer to represent Gulfport until it hires a new full-time attorney.

"This same Mr. Minkoff has represented other council members. He has represented people who Gulfport has litigation against. He's been around Gulfport a long time. I just think he lacks experience in government law,'' Worthington said.

"I think that we need somebody who is going to represent Gulfport in a fair and equitable manner."

Yakes said he feels comfortable with the status quo.

No timetable has been set for the study, he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Gulfport passes on full-time lawyer for now 09/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 6:51pm]
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