Council cuts its own pay, criticizes attorneys' salaries
The salaries earned by city attorneys came under fire during a recent budget workshop.
After a review of Mayor Bill Foster's budget for 2012, which contained no budget reduction for the City Attorney's Office, council member Karl Nurse let loose.
"I don't think it's fair that top paid attorneys don't take cuts," Nurse told City Attorney John Wolfe. "Everyone else gets cuts. It's bad for morale. They're the highest paid employees, and they're the only ones who don't participate in the cuts."
Wolfe defended the salaries, saying his attorneys could make quite a bit more in private practice. His office has about a dozen full-time attorneys. Ten earn more than $80,000. Three of the city's top 10 salaries are attorneys.
"It depends on the quality of attorneys you want," Wolfe said. "We could go with cheaper attorneys. If you want cheaper quality of service, tell me, and I can do that."
He said his attorneys' legal acumen avoids losing verdicts that would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands. He said his staff negotiated contracts with vendors such as Oracle that saved the city $200,000. His office has won some high-profile cases of late, such as a homeless case that's now in appeal. But it has lost some, too. It lost a case to the Tierra Verde Civic Association, nixing a proposed project the city approved after a 2008 annexation. Last year it also lost a pension case that required the city to pay $1.5 million in benefits to 351 former officers.
Only Wengay Newton joined Nurse in his criticism. Newton said he felt that Wolfe, who is supposed to be a legal adviser to both Foster and the council, instead turned into an advocate for a red light camera program that Foster supported — and Newton opposed.
"It's times like that where I sense a conflict," Newton said.
"I work for you, too," Wolfe said.
Leslie Curran defended the city attorneys.
"You haven't been given a raise and your workload has increased," she said. "I think we have a great legal department.
Minutes later, council members agreed to cut their own pay by 3 percent, reducing their salaries from $38,914 to $37,714 annually.
The cut, coming a year after another 3 percent reduction, caused concern that the City Council is becoming a bastion for retirees and the independently wealthy. Those who work for an employer can ill afford to take time off for a job that requires time and pays little.
"Wouldn't it be nice to have someone under 30 on the council?" said Chairman Jim Kennedy.
Missing: Contract for new transit chief
Pinellas County's new transit chief, Brad Miller, came to meet and do interviews with the area's news media on Wednesday. But his contract wasn't as accessible.
Despite records requests over the past three weeks, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority wouldn't provide a copy of his contract, which is a public record. The board voted unanimously in a public meeting April 27 to approve the agreement, and members received the documents in a public meeting.
After the kerfuffle, Miller e-mailed us to dispel questions about his contract. He signed his contract May 18 and mailed it, said Miller, who didn't understand why it hadn't been released.
"I apologize if there was a delay or confusion in your getting a copy of the agreement. I wasn't told that you or some other St. Petersburg Times reporter had made requests for it previously," Miller wrote.
In e-mail responses this month and April, however, PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said changes were still being made to the contract and he would check to see if "it's ready."
No records came.
Lasher said he didn't think the information had to be released to the public until it was fully signed off on, and questioned a reporter's need to have it right away since Miller doesn't start until July 5.
"Just relax. There's no shenanigans," said Lasher, who then added that he was at an event and abruptly hung up.
But after being pressed, the agency ponied up the deal and a $1.35 bill for copying expenses.
Predecessor Tim Garling received $153,500 a year. Miller's salary will be $170,000.
Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and David DeCamp contributed to this report.