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One vote retains Madeira Beach city attorney

MADEIRA BEACH — By a margin of just one vote Tuesday, Michael Connolly kept his job as city attorney — at least for the next 30 days.

Connolly's contract includes a clause allowing the city or the attorney himself to terminate his service with a month's notice.

During nearly an hour of debate, all but one commissioner and many residents sharply criticized what they viewed as a betrayal by their city attorney.

"This just wasn't the right way to treat the commission and the city," said Commissioner Nancy Oakley.

She said Connolly failed to warn commissioners that in terminating City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. in February, at his request, they were also approving a substantial severance package of about $78,000. Oakley had made the original motion to fire Higginbotham and Tuesday moved to terminate Connolly.

"I felt I was duped, and you didn't do anything to stop it. That was totally wrong," Oakley said.

Commissioner Carol Reynolds, who joined the February vote to terminate Higginbotham, said she thought he was resigning and did not think the city would have to pay him severance.

She repeatedly asked Connolly to explain what he had known about Higginbotham's plan to ask to be terminated and why he had not given the termination resolution to the commission either before the vote or during the remainder of the public meeting.

"I have no confidence in you," newly elected Mayor Travis Palladeno told Connolly.

Newly elected Commissioner Robin Vander Velde said Connolly's failure to give the commission a formal resolution during the meeting was a violation of the Sunshine Law.

Connolly disputed that — and refused her request to reimburse the city from his fees for the money paid to Higginbotham.

Many residents were adamant that Connolly be fired.

"As an observer, the city has no choice but to let the city attorney go and file suit against him for the money he was paid since January and the money he cost us with W.D.," resident Joe Jorgensen said.

But one commissioner and several residents objected to the attacks on Connolly.

"I am blown away," said Commissioner Terry Lister. "I absolutely don't agree with this. Mike has done a wonderful job as city attorney."

"Let it ride for a while. You will always have ability to say we tried you, we had our doubts and it didn't work," resident Bill Mohns said.

"If you have a problem with the manner of the city manager's departure, the blame lies totally with City Commission and not the city attorney," said resident Dick Lewis.

In his own defense, Connolly told the commission that Higginbotham had talked to him before the meeting and that he had prepared an appropriate resolution for the commission, if it were needed.

"Never in all my wildest dreams did I think there would be absolutely no discussion," said Connolly, adding he was "shocked" at the speed of the board's decision to terminate Higginbotham.

Connolly spoke at length, suggesting the board faced a decision that would be made "on politics or on confidence."

He stressed that during more than five years of serving the city he had always had its best interests at heart.

"I have brought a lot of money into this city, and I challenge you to find other city attorneys who have done so," Connolly said.

He gave the commission written documentation of more than $165,000 in revenue his legal efforts generated for the city in just the past seven months.

In the end, only Palladeno and Oakley voted to fire Connolly.

Ironically, one of the items on this Tuesday's commission workshop agenda is a suggestion by Vander Velde that the city consider joining a lawsuit filed against the city by former City Manager Jim Madden, who's challenging Higginbotham's termination and severance package.

"I'm not sure if the city can or would want to sue itself," interim City Manager Bill Mallory wrote in an e-mail copied to the entire commission, the city clerk and Connolly.

One vote retains Madeira Beach city attorney 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 5:31am]

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