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New Port Richey hires interim lawyer

NEW PORT RICHEY — The good news: The city on Tuesday hired an experienced attorney to help out while officials find a permanent replacement.

The bad: While looking for a new attorney, City Manager John Schneiger said he discovered a legal oversight that may have cost the city tens of thousands of dollars.

The contract for former city attorney Tom Morrison, who resigned last month, guaranteed him a $3,250 monthly retainer, with $130 an hour for overtime. If his monthly wage tipped over $5,000, the council would need to sign off on the overtime.

Yet for years, the council never did. Schneiger, who was hired in March, found in recent weeks that Morrison routinely earned thousands of dollars more than his contract's retainer without the council's input. Last year, Schneiger said, the city paid Morrison $95,600 — more than $30,000 higher than the monthly cap would have allowed.

Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe could not remember approving any overtime over the last four years, and Schneiger said he wasn't quite sure how long the expensive error had gone unchecked. "It may be one of those situations," he said, "where they were just used to doing it that way and got used to it and lost sight of that issue. I honestly don't know."

But Morrison, who worked with the city for 16 years, said the arrangement was never controversial. When he earned more than $5,000, he said, former city managers would include the overtime on consent agendas, which the council often approves without discussion. The blame for any oversight, he said, belonged to the city.

"I just sent invoices," said Morrison, an attorney with the Tampa law firm Morrison & Mills. "It was their job to figure out what to do when they got them."

The city's new interim attorney, Mike Davis, will likely earn less on average than Morrison — even though his retainer is more than double. For advising the council on legal issues, Davis will earn a flat monthly rate of $7,500, no overtime included.

Davis worked as the city attorney of St. Petersburg for 19 years before retiring in 2000. An attorney with the Bryant Miller Olive firm, in downtown Tampa, he works also as a city attorney for St. Pete Beach. He and partner Susan Churuti, a former attorney for Pinellas County, will advise the New Port Richey council under a temporary contract that will last through May.

Schneiger said he talked to 10 potential applicants, including Davis, over the last week. The city manager whittled the number to three, then made the presentation to the council Tuesday night. Davis, Schneiger's top pick, was unanimously approved.

Mayor Scott McPherson, a personal injury attorney, said he wished city leaders had more of a say in the selection.

"I wasn't entirely comfortable that there hadn't been more council consideration," he said. "There's nothing wrong with the staff bringing a short list to us, but I'd like to see the council vet the list, and the council interview them."

Members said they wanted the permanent attorney search to have more council input — and fewer costly hiccups.

"I'm happy with what we managed to get," Marlowe said, "as ugly as the process looked."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

New Port Richey hires interim lawyer 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 8:51pm]
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