Friday, January 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett exits early to use up vacation hours

CLEARWATER –– After nine years as the Pinellas County Attorney, Jim Bennett is no longer advising county leaders. He left his post May 27 and is collecting unused vacation until he retires July 5.

Jewel White, Bennett's chief assistant attorney since 2014, now leads the office.

"He's gone, " Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long said. "He is taking his vacation time. I'm fine with that."

Bennett's staff plans to honor him Wednesday night at a farewell party at a Clearwater bar, records show.

In January, Bennett, 65, announced his retirement, saying, "it's time to join his wife and family and "to sit under our own vine and fig tree ... and to begin our next great adventure."

The position won't be vacant for long.

The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee, which consists of seven county commissioners and the five county constitutional officers, is in the process of reviewing candidates to fill the post.

The committee is expected to meet Thursday morning to announce candidates being considered for the post.

Bennett's resignation quickly tested the Pinellas County Charter amendment that voters approved in November to hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. In prior years, county commissioners had the sole authority over the county attorney.

At the time, elected leaders like Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke praised Bennett for his contributions to the county.

His retirement triggered officials to question some

> benefits he received as the county's top lawyer.

He belongs to the state pension system, but since 2008 the county has also contributed $201,000 to his tax-deferred personal retirement account on top of that pension. He will be able to access that money when he retires July 30. Other county employees do not have the same perk.

His contract also calls for a $9,000-a-year car allowance –– or $750 a month. That is an extra $66,000 Bennett has received since 2008. It's up to the 12 elected leaders to determine whether the next county attorney gets those perks.

Bennett and his office drew criticism in recent months from public officials for the legal advice it gave to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. Bennett declined to discuss the advice his office has given the licensing board, citing attorney-client privilege.

The board disciplines contractors but operates without any oversight. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that consumers and contractors alike felt unfairly treated by the board and a smaller subgroup that handles disciplinary matters.

The agency also has issues handling conflicts of interest and obeying public records law. It also operated without obeying its own rules or state law, while the county attorney was its legal advisor. A grand jury is now investigating the agency.

Bennett became the acting county attorney after the Pinellas County Commission fired his predecessor, Susan Churuti, over the Jim Smith land sale scandal.

Smith, the former property appraiser, retired in 2008 under a cloud after the county spent $225,000 buying land from him, which was four times at which his own office had valued the parcel.

Churuti lost her job in 2007 after a grand jury found her handling of the Smith land sale "perplexing and misleading." Former county administrator Steve Spratt also ended up resigning.

Bennett became the permanent county attorney in March 2008.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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