Gulfport will hold a special workshop Thursday to hash out a proposal to replace the city's part-time lawyer with a full-time staff position.
Mayor Mike Yakes said he wants to end ongoing discussion about the matter.
"We need to knuckle down,'' he said. "Thursday is the time to say, we're moving forward, we agree to put out the search, advertise and bring onboard a city attorney.''
Yakes, who backs the full-time position, said it makes financial sense. Timothy Driscoll, the current part-time city attorney, is paid about $87,000 a year, he said.
"I think that with a little bit more, we will have a full-time legal adviser,'' he said, adding that the city has budgeted $120,000 for the new job.
At least two members of the City Council are not convinced of the financial wisdom of such a decision.
"We just went through and gutted our city budget, so I don't know where we're going to get money to hire a new city attorney,'' said council member Bob Worthington. "It seems like bad timing to me.''
Council member Mary Stull agreed.
"I just worry about the whole cost of the thing. It sounds like it is going to be an economic measure, but you're going to have to figure out the extras that go along with it. You're not only going to pay a salary; you're going to pay benefits,'' she said, adding that there might also be the need to hire support staff and to pay for research materials.
Judy Ryerson, the newest member of the council, says she's open-minded on the subject.
"I'm still wanting some answers, like the cost and how we're going to house one. Is there actually enough work for a full-time attorney?'' she said.
Though she said she was satisfied with Driscoll's performance, Ryerson said, "I think there could be some adjustments and improvement, but I don't think that a wholesale dumping is necessary.''
Gulfport hired Driscoll in 1990, five years after he graduated from Stetson University College of Law. In 2005, he stepped down from representing the city in a zoning issue after some residents complained that he had not defended the city aggressively enough. Later that year, Worthington called for a vote on whether the city should replace Driscoll. The City Council kept him. Worthington now says he's satisfied with the lawyer's work.
Last year, in response to complaints by St. Pete Beach commissioners who no longer trusted his legal advice, Driscoll resigned as that city's attorney. He has provided legal services to the Pinellas County Mayors Council and represented city commissioners in Pinellas Park and Redington Beach.
City Council member Michele King supports the mayor's rationale for hiring a full-time attorney.
"In the long run, it's going to cost us less. Right now, we have a city attorney on retainer and he gets paid extra. If we had an in-house attorney, that wouldn't be the case. I think it's an idea that's finally found its time,'' King said.
"We're not looking to build space. We're not looking for a legal assistant. We're looking for someone who will get the ordinances out in a timely fashion and one who doesn't have the financial incentive to litigate,'' she said.
Tom Minkoff, who campaigned briefly for Pinellas County property appraiser, has offered to represent Gulfport until it hires a new full-time attorney, King added.
Yakes said Driscoll is welcome to apply for the full-time position.
"I have worked with the city attorney for 17 years. My decision is not to push him out. My decision is to do the best for the city. If the council agrees, then we bring it to the next council meeting,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.