Wednesday, September 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas County's top officials to discuss County Attorney Jim Bennett's perks

CLEARWATER — Retiring Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett enjoys a few perks that no other county employee receives.

Bennett 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 on July 30.

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.

Those rare perks flew under the radar until Bennett announced Jan. 30 that he will retire this summer. Now they will be among the topics discussed when Pinellas County's seven commissioners and five constitutional officers meet today to come up with a strategy to hire a new county attorney.

This is new ground for Pinellas County government. The 12-member committee was created when voters approved a Pinellas County Charter amendment in November to create an oversight committee with the power to hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. Before the amendment, only the Pinellas County Commission could do that.

While Bennett is set to depart, his perks have become an issue because four commissioners who have taken office since 2012 said they didn't know about them.

"I've been struggling with this for two weeks," County Commission chairwoman Janet Long, who was elected in 2012, said at a recent meeting. "I think this is a problem. (Bennett) doesn't seem to think it's a problem."

Bennett, 65, who earns about $217,000 a year, did not respond to the Tampa Bay Times about the perks. He told elected officials in an email that "it would not be appropriate to respond to this press inquiry" because the matter is set for public discussion.

In October 2008, the commission voted 6-1 to approve Bennett's contract. But the meeting minutes from three discussions do not mention the additional retirement contributions. Commissioner Karen Seel was the lone dissenter, records show, because she had a "problem with the auto allowance."

Bennett's retirement account is a 457(b) tax-deferred retirement savings plan offered by municipal governments, like the private-sector 401(k) plans. Tax-deferred plans are optional for other employees, but the county does not make contributions.

In 2008, commissioners re-evaluated the contract for the county attorney during contract negotiations with then-incoming county administrator Bob LaSala, records show. Like Bennett, LaSala also received taxpayer contributions for his deferred-retirement account.

Commissioners replaced LaSala with assistant county administrator Mark Woodard in 2014. The longtime Pinellas employee declined an employment contract, saying he did not want any perks that rank-and-file employees do not receive.

Long said it was while preparing for today's oversight committee meeting that she discovered commissioners had not publicly discussed Bennett's compensation since 2008, even though his contract requires it. On Feb. 16, Long emailed the contract to each commissioner and asked them to "give some thought to what this package represents in today's dollars."

Last week, Long told the board that she was "embarrassed" she did not know about the contract. She faulted Bennett for not being transparent and informing the four newest commissioners about his compensation package.

Seel and Commissioner Ken Welch were in office in 2008. Welch said he did not "recall" the provision that taxpayers would match Bennett's contributions. Seel said she was "caught off guard" and needed more information before discussing the contract.

Commissioners Charlie Justice, Dave Eggers and Pat Gerard also did not know about Bennett's contract. All have been elected since 2012.

"I'm a little embarrassed that I don't know what his package is," Eggers said. "That's a little bit concerning."

Bennett has spent three decades giving legal advice to county government. He became the acting county attorney after the county commission fired his predecessor over a land sale scandal.

Recently, his office has drawn criticism for the legal advice it gave to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which is now the subject of a grand jury investigation.

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

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