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County legal staff gets mixed review

A survey regarding Hernando County's Legal Department praises County Attorney Bruce Snow for his expertise and knowledge.

However, some of the surveys, distributed this year to the managers of 17 county departments and to three constitutional officers, also criticize Snow and his county legal staff as inaccessible.

"The county attorney himself has usually been impossible to reach on a timely basis," a department manager responded to a question about communication between the department and legal office.

"Access to attorneys. Phone calls are frequently not returned," another manager wrote about the office's weaknesses.

About half the respondents said a shortcoming in the legal office is "slow, extremely slow, extended/untimely response time to inquiries/requests/correspondence."

In March, the county's Internal Audit Department, at the request of County Administrator Charles B. Hetrick, asked department managers to answer 11 questions, from the legal office's strengths and weaknesses to its mission. The confidential responses were released June 19 in a report prepared by Internal Audit, which did not make any recommendations to the county administration.

The purpose was "to determine management's opinions of past and current legal services provided," according to a memo to county administrators from Internal Audit Department director J. Michael Hoskins-Lanterman. The surveys also are meant "to be a mechanism for management's input in determining the direction of future legal services."

This is not the first time the department has been criticized. In the past, county officials and residents have called for Legal Department audits and a full-time county attorney who does not maintain a private practice.

Snow, who receives a $72,000 retainer from the county and also has a private practice in Brooksville, says the nature of county cases determines his availability. For example, Snow said, he travels to Tallahassee to represent the county on utility issues. At such times, it would be difficult for county staff to reach him, he acknowledged.

"If you speak to the people I'm directly responsible to, I'm very accessible," said Snow, who has been the county's lead attorney for 23 years and reports to Hetrick and the commissioners. "Does that mean you're always accessible to every department head? The answer is no."

Historically, county staff has relied mainly on Snow, rather than other staff attorneys, to answer inquiries.

Commissioners June Ester and Nancy Robinson say they are satisfied with Snow's response times.

"I've never had any trouble getting a hold of Bruce, but I'm in a different category, being a commissioner," Ester said. "If I can't find him in our building, then I'll call his office. I haven't had to wait more than a couple of hours to get a hold of him."

Commissioner Pat Novy, however, says she does not get timely responses from Snow or his staff. "I think he's trying to spread himself too thin," said Novy, who has called for an audit of the Legal Department to determine how many cases the staff has won.

"Performance means money," Novy said.

Although commissioners voted in 1993 to audit the Legal Department, Hetrick has not requested an audit from the Internal Audit Department. Hetrick said he would decide later whether to ask for one.

There are plans for a follow-up survey, Ester said.

Meanwhile, the county will focus on improving the shortcomings noted in the first survey.

In the survey, county staff said:

Some strengths of the legal office include its "tried and proven trial experience," the "legal and negotiating skills of Bruce Snow" and "diverse experience in the public sector."

A primary function of the department should be "prompt, accurate advice and research as needed. Legal opinion, as opposed to political management."

The Legal Department should "make an effort to work as a team; all should attend training sessions regarding "how to get it done as a team.' The perception is that they think they are all prima donnas."

When asked to grade the survey responses from an A to an F, Hetrick and Snow declined.

"The test is how responsively one responds to criticism," Snow said.

Although the surveys were distributed in March, Hetrick and Snow say they think the responses were based on the period when managing attorney Butch Battista and attorney Ken Warnstadt were on the staff. In January, Hetrick announced a legal office restructuring and eliminated the positions of Battista and Warnstadt.

In April, William Buztrey was hired as assistant county attorney to fill the positions.

Since Buztrey's hiring, the legal office has turned around, Hetrick and Snow said.

"We knew there were problems, and the survey certainly confirms those problems," Hetrick said. With Buztrey, he continued, "those problems are going to go away."

Buztrey, who has received rave reviews from county staff, has practiced government law for nearly 14 years. He was the assistant county attorney in Charlotte County before coming to Hernando.

Buztrey said he is prepared to tackle the concerns. "Let me be here a little while so they judge me not by the past, but by the service I provide them," he said.

Battista, the county's former managing attorney, acknowledged that complaints about the Legal Department existed when he was on staff, before the restructuring.

During his discussions with department heads as managing attorney, Battista fielded complaints about the staff, including Snow's accessibility, he said.

"He's had to weather those for years," said Battista, who now works with the law firm of Johnston & Sasser and serves as the Brooksville city attorney. "If the change (in attorneys) over there makes those go away, then super."

According to a response on one survey, the county should increase the legal staff to improve efficiency, by hiring either another lawyer or a paralegal.

Snow said hiring a law clerk is a possibility. However, he added that the county's goal has been to run a cost-efficient department.

"We could hire eight lawyers, like Charlotte County has done, and assign each lawyer to each department, and we can make accessibility a strength," Snow said.

"The question becomes what you lose in doing that. And what you lose is cost-efficiency, so you have to do some balancing.

"The issue is, you need to have adequate support staff so every department head has a competent, qualified attorney to respond to a question or issue."