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Legal Idol: Pinellas leaders select five candidates for county attorney's job

CLEARWATER — The committee of Pinellas elected leaders tasked with hiring a new county attorney said Thursday the old one has left them in a bit of a bind.

The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee — comprised of seven county commissioners and five constitutional officers with the power to hire and fire the county attorney — finalized a list of five candidates who are being considered to replace departing county attorney Jim Bennett.

But then they had to pick one of those finalists to serve as interim county attorney: Chief Assistant Attorney Jewel White, Bennett's top aide. That's because Bennett left his post at the end of May to collect unused vacation hours and will leave the county payroll on July 5.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: After 33 years, Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett set to retire in July

When the committee formed in February, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri objected to an idea to create categories for external and internal candidates. Gualtieri reiterated Thursday that no one will receive special treatment.

"Ideally, we would be better off not having a candidate for the position fill it in an interim role," Gualtieri said about White. "Nobody should infer that she's anything more than someone to do the job on an interim basis. A vote now does not mean anything about a vote on her later."

Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long told the group nobody expected Bennett to depart early to exhaust vacation hours after originally pledging to work until July 30.

Added Commissioner Charlie Justice: "If this were at the beginning of our search process, it might be different so that we wouldn't have a perceived automatic candidate."

More than 25 candidates applied for the position, which pays more than $215,000 annually. Those candidates are:

• Drew Atkinson, 44, is the general counsel at the Florida Department of Management Services. His prior positions include the Florida Department of State, Office of the General Counsel for the Governor and the Florida Attorney General's Office.

• Stacey Manning, 51, is the Putnam County Attorney. His prior positions include the Osceola County Attorney's Office, the Volusia County Attorney's Office and four private law firms.

• Reginald Osenton, 52, is the city attorney for Port St. Lucie. He has also served as the mayor in Mitchell Heights, W.V.; town attorney in Man, W.V.; with the Logan County Prosecuting Attorney's Office in West Virginia; and five other private firms.

• Phillip Sherwin, 64, has served with the Polk County Attorney's Office, the city of Cape Coral and two other private firms.

• White, 46, already works for Pinellas County. She served under Bennett and was managing assistant county attorney and assistant county attorney.

Human resources director Holly Schoenherr said staffers will contact people inside and outside of each candidates current and former employers. The committee also debated what questions it will ask and thoroughly they should vet the candidates' backgrounds and references.

Gualtieri told staffers to obtain police reports from all municipalities where candidates live and to interview people who know the candidates, not just the public officials they represent.

"If you don't do that, I think we're missing a tremendous amount," Gualtieri said. "References are useless. We need to get the people who know them."

The committee plans to meet the candidates on July 11 and July 18.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

Legal Idol: Pinellas leaders select five candidates for county attorney's job 06/15/17 [Last modified: Thursday, June 15, 2017 9:13pm]
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