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Hillsborough commissioners set to pick a new county attorney

TAMPA — One is the former top lawyer for the city of Tampa.

The other was a top deputy in the office he now wants to run.

Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled today to consider hiring one as their county attorney.

"You've got two qualified candidates," said Tom Scott, a former Tampa City Council member and county commissioner who has worked with the men. "Both of them are capable."

Charles R. "Chip" Fletcher, 43, currently is general counsel to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. He returned to private practice in 2011 after three years as the Tampa city attorney. He also spent five months beginning in late 2006 as an appointed City Council member.

Jim Porter, 48, started in the county attorney's office in 1990, working his way up the ranks over 14 years to become a deputy to then-County Attorney Emmy Acton. He has spent the past eight years in private practice as a land-use lawyer, the area he supervised while with the county.

The county attorney oversees 57 employees, including 34 lawyers, and a $7 million budget. Fletcher and Porter are seeking to replace Renee Lee, forced out more than a year ago over a secret pay raise and other allegations.

Porter enjoys a reputation as a smart land-use lawyer.

"I've always known him to be an even keel kind of person and certainly a good lawyer," said Vin Marchetti, who works in the same area and also spent time in the county attorney's office, stressing he thinks both candidates are qualified.

Despite the specialty, even some environmental activists have rallied behind him.

"I have confidence in Mr. Porter that he'll provide sound legal advice rather than advice commissioners want to hear," said Terry Flott, with the pro-growth-management group United Citizens Action Network.

He had faced the toughest questions of any of the candidates in public interviews, largely from interim County Attorney Don Odom, who probed Porter's time with the county.

Acton, his former boss, had faced largely anonymous allegations from nonlawyer employees that she ran an abusive workplace. Porter, the employees said, participated in the abuse.

Marty Johnson, a former paralegal who reported to Porter, remembered him recently in an interview as a "screamer" who publicly dressed down workers. A survey of office employees conducted by an outside auditing firm around that time, in 2003, reinforced that image of him.

Johnson also said Porter asked him to secretly pull a courthouse divorce file for a deputy of the county administrator, and that the public record disappeared. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would look into that issue but take no action.

"This is a guy who would cause Hillsborough County tremendous grief," said Johnson, now in private practice. "Every citizen would pay for it."

Porter said he never pulled anyone's divorce file and declined further comment on the topic. He said he finds it hard to defend himself against vague, anonymous allegations of 10 years ago.

"It's kind of how you handle it, what you take a way from it, what you learn from it," Porter said. "I think I learned a lot."

He noted he twice was chosen as manager of the year in a vote of the entire office and received stellar evaluations. That was true until his final evaluation in 2004 by Odom, which faulted him for poor management and treating employees harshly.

Margaret Courtney, a former assistant county attorney who worked with him, nevertheless wrote a letter to commission Chairman Ken Hagan saying Porter would be a strong leader for an office that needs one.

"Jim was always professional to me," said Courtney, who is now a county judge. "He was kind and caring. I personally never saw any negative behavior from him."

Fletcher's personnel file with the city includes glowing reviews as well. But he worked there only for three years.

Nice and friendly are words many people who know him use to describe Fletcher. He also is considered in legal circles to be a competent lawyer.

As the city attorney, he reported to both Mayor Pam Iorio and the City Council. In the strong mayor form of government, Iorio had greater control.

Fletcher is engaged to marry a Tampa Bay Times photo editor.

How would he fare with seven bosses often sending him conflicting directions? Friends say he would have no trouble.

"You cannot be a wuss and work for Pam," said Honey Rand, a public affairs consultant.

Iorio echoes Scott in saying the county has two strong options and vouched for Fletcher as a straight shooter. He offered sound legal advice, leaving politics out of it, she said.

"That's what you want with the attorney," Iorio said. "You want someone who will give the very best legal advice based on what's best for the public."

Having the endorsement of Iorio, a Democrat, may be a liability for Fletcher, who is seeking to get hired by a board with a 5-2 Republican majority. Some are trying to stir that pot.

Former Republican commissioner Brian Blair piggybacked off an email from another activist to commissioners last week that noted Fletcher's money-raising activities for Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama. Blair dismissed Fletcher as a "liberal activist."

Fletcher said he has contributed to campaigns for people of various political stripes, noting he is one of the hosts for a fundraiser Thursday for Republican state Senate hopeful Tom Lee. Porter also has contributed to political campaigns.

He and Fletcher say they won't any longer if hired, and can't anyway under the county's charter.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Hillsborough commissioners set to pick a new county attorney 10/02/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:05am]
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