HERNANDO BEACH — When local commercial fishermen and women rallied recently to ask for help as the gulf oil spill devastates their livelihoods, the event came as a surprise to Cecilia Patella.
As Hernando County's emergency management director, Patella is coordinating the response to whatever the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster brings to the area. But she was not at the gathering, she said, because she was not told of the event.
Now, as Patella coordinates a workshop next week to help people file claims for damages — a workshop at which people will be advised not to sign anything until authorities work out the details of the compensation plans — the group that organized the protest has invited a law firm here to meet with the fishermen.
Some affected boat owners and workers already have signed deals with the lawyers, a move that concerns Patella, who once again was left out of the loop.
"I don't know who the law firm is, and I don't know what they're offering,'' Patella said Friday.
The Pensacola firm, Michele & Booth, P.A., has been meeting with people at the Holiday Inn Express on U.S. 19 and has extended its stay with sessions today, Monday and Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. until 8 p.m., according to a news release by local seafood business spokeswoman Kathryn Birren.
She said the lawyers were invited because they have experience with oil spill claims in the Panhandle. Birren said she didn't see a problem with bringing them in so that people could ask questions. It was up to each individual whether he or she signed on with the attorneys.
Birren said she had talked to a number of people who have filed BP claims and who have had trouble with claims to BP, and she said that is why people need to have someone to ask for legal advice. That is especially important for people living paycheck to paycheck, she said.
Patella encouraged people to come to the emergency management workshop on Wednesday to learn about claims and other legal issues related to the spill.
As soon as she heard that the fishermen were having trouble selling their catches and were clamoring for an extension to the deadline for renewing their commercial licenses, Patella said she started lining up help.
She arranged to have someone from the office of the state's chief financial officer come to speak at the 10 a.m. workshop at the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary building in Hernando Beach.
Among the messages will be one urging caution to those filing claims before knowing the full scope of what the documents say. That was one of the early warnings from the office of the state CFO.
Patella stopped short of saying there was any problem with the effort but urged people to be sure they knew what they were signing.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.