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St. Pete Beach commissioners reluctantly hire city attorney

ST. PETE BEACH — It took more than two hours and two votes, but the city has a new attorney — at least for a month.

Despite nearly two decades serving as city attorney for St. Petersburg and an extensive winning record in appeals all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court while defending cities and counties, Michael Davis had a hard time Monday night convincing the St. Pete Beach commission that he was qualified enough to serve as the city's attorney.

"I am really embarrassed. I apologize for the city. This is a travesty," Mayor Michael Finnerty said to Davis at one point.

The meeting started with commissioners questioning Davis about his background.

Commissioner Linda Chaney was particularly concerned that Davis did not have enough expertise in comprehensive planning issues.

Davis repeatedly told the commission that while he was quite familiar with municipal planning law, his Tampa-based law firm has several lawyers on staff who are considered experts.

Commissioner Harry Metz said he liked Davis but objected to paying nearly twice as much an hour for legal work beyond the regular retainer. Davis wanted $205 an hour compared to the $130 and $125 hourly fees paid to the previous two city attorneys.

"In today's legal environment, this ($205 an hour) is not a lot of money for a lawyer," Davis told the commission.

Several residents echoed concerns over Davis' level of expertise in planning issues and his proposed fee.

But when it came time to vote, Finnerty had to second Commissioner Al Halpern's motion to offer the job to Davis. Chaney, Metz and Commissioner Christopher Leonard all voted no.

"I feel he has a lack of expertise," said Chaney, explaining her vote.

"I just want to give him a chance. You are making a mistake by not offering him a contract tonight," Finnerty said repeatedly.

The commission then decided to take a 15-minute recess to consider what to do next.

Leonard turned out to be the swing vote and author of the compromise.

Leonard first voted against hiring Davis, arguing that he did not have an opportunity to participate in the original attorney candidate interviews.

"There were questions I would have liked to ask of the other candidates," he said.

But when the commission, even after taking a 15-minute break, could not agree on what to do next, Leonard suggested that Davis be hired on a trial basis.

Davis agreed to reduce his retainer from $5,300 to $5,000 a month, but insisted he could not cut his firm's $205 hourly fee for litigation work.

In an effort to respond to Chaney's concerns, Leonard also suggested that while Davis would serve as the city's attorney on "day-to-day issues," now former City Attorney Ralf Brookes would continue to advise the city and the Planning Board on development issues through the June 3 referendum election.

"Brookes may not show up," Finnerty warned the commission. Brookes resigned suddenly earlier this month, only three months after he was hired to serve as city attorney, citing "personal" reasons.

On a narrow 3-2 vote, Davis was appointed as the city's attorney for 30 days. His performance will be evaluated at the commission's June 10 meeting.

Davis' contract could be extended at that time or the commission could decide to readvertise the post and begin the candidate interview process again.

"I still am not happy with the price," said Metz, who along with Chaney, voted a second time against Davis.

Davis assured the commission that he would coordinate with Brookes on legal issues facing the city.

St. Pete Beach commissioners reluctantly hire city attorney 05/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 3:34pm]
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