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Longtime city attorney parts ways with New Port Richey

NEW PORT RICHEY — What exactly happened between officials to send the city's longtime attorney packing?

Some say tensions may have flared — because of the emus.

City Attorney Thomas Morrison's move to resign this week after 16 years shocked City Council members, who defended Morrison's expertise and history with the city while worrying how they could quickly find a replacement.

Morrison asked the city not to renew his yearly contract, which ends this month, meaning the city will be without critical legal leadership in a little more than a week. He did not respond to phone and e-mail messages Friday.

But members said his decision took root at least in part because of a suggestion from City Manager John Schneiger, who recommended earlier this month that the city search for a new attorney to ensure the best price and expertise.

But first, the emus.

At a meeting earlier this month, the council voted to merge the city's animal codes with the codes of the county, which handles the city's animal control. Basing their decision partly on Morrison's guidance, officials said they believed the consolidation wouldn't cause a problem.

Officials learned later that the vote had opened a number of strange loopholes — legalizing, among other oddities, the owning of emus and mules, bow and gun hunting, even dogfighting. City Council members rushed to reset the "unintentionally repealed" codes and, on Tuesday, the council passed an emergency ordinance restoring order.

But some believed the damage was already done.

"There was some discomfort with the advice we were getting," Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe said. "The thinking was that Tom (Morrison) should have caught that."

Council member Judy DeBella Thomas defended Morrison, saying he had been "ambushed" with animal-code questions at the first meeting and punished too harshly for a simple mistake.

"Unfortunately, we missed whatever needed to be corrected, but I didn't think that was such a grievous situation," she said. "The way it happened was just, to me, such a surprise."

But Marlowe and DeBella Thomas agreed that the code "oversight" appeared to be just the tip of a more troubling tension: Schneiger's suggestion this month to look elsewhere.

The "request for proposals" would have allowed Morrison to reapply for his job and compete with other applicants. That, too, didn't sit well with Morrison.

"He apparently did have some words with John (Schneiger)," Marlowe said. "Obviously, he wasn't happy, because he removed his name from the position."

Schneiger said he "did discuss some differences with Tom (Morrison)," but would not go into detail. "I would assume he didn't like them, based on the resignation."

City attorneys serve as legal advisers to the council: writing ordinances, giving legal opinions, protecting the city from liabilities and, sometimes, even defending the city in court. Though they are hired by the council, they often still represent cases for outside firms.

Morrison, of the Tampa law firm Morrison & Mills, earns a monthly retainer of $3,250 for 25 hours a month and is paid $130 for each hour worked overtime, city records show. His monthly salary caps at $5,000 a month, said City Clerk Linda Kann.

For comparison, Port Richey City Attorney Michael Brannigan, hired in 2008, earns $4,125 a month up to 25 hours, with up to $200 an hour added on for overtime. That council agreed in November to seek bids for a potential replacement.

Schneiger, a former deputy city manager in Eustis who was hired by the city in March, said a request for attorneys' applications has been drafted. The deadline for applications will expire in about six weeks. Officials have begun looking for an interim attorney, who will advise the council for about four months.

Members' opinions differed on the value of a fresh start.

"From my perspective, regardless of the incident with the animal control thing, we probably do need to take a look at some of these long-standing relationships," Marlowe said. "There is a tendency to get stale."

DeBella Thomas wasn't so sure of that, saying, "I don't believe that you need to fix something unless it's broken." On Schneiger's suggestion, she said, "It's a little disconcerting to hear all the things that are supposedly broken that must be fixed — for me, that just came out of left field."

She also worried Morrison's replacement could cost more and know less, yoking the city with a legal tenderfoot just as officials prepare for what promises to be another agonizing budget season.

"I'm worried about it, absolutely," Mayor Scott McPherson said. "I'm worried about the fact that he has resigned, and there are no interviews lined up. … When you're talking about a position as important as the city attorney, it's not something you want to be scrambling on. You want to be deliberate about it. You want to be thorough."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Longtime city attorney parts ways with New Port Richey 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 8:55pm]

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