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Bayfront, city seek help from retired judge

As attorneys for the city and Bayfront Medical Center try once again Friday to resolve their differences, they'll be guided by a respected jurist who would lend considerable credibility to any agreement they might reach.

Ben Overton, who retired as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court last year, will marshal the latest attempt by the city and Bayfront to work out a deal over the hospital's participation in the BayCare Health Alliance.

Attorneys and administrators from the city and the hospital will meet privately with him Friday. They hope to emerge with a resolution that will allow the city to avoid suing the hospital over the alliance.

This marks the third try at mediation but the first with Overton, a former circuit judge from Pinellas County. Michael Keane, Bayfront's attorney, said his camp suggested hiring Overton because he is respected and trusted.

"The best aspect of the mediation process is the ability of the mediator to test the strengths and weaknesses of each side," Keane said. "He can ask the hard questions, and I expect he's going to ask them of both sides."

The City Council must approve any agreement. If someone like Overton can explain and back it, the council may be more likely to do that, Keane added.

Bayfront and seven other Tampa Bay non-profit hospitals, including two Catholic-run ones, formed BayCare in 1997. The city, which leases Bayfront much of its land, blessed the arrangement.

The city later learned that the agreement requires Bayfront to follow some aspects of Catholic religious directives, including banning elective abortions. Some on the council say they fear other concessions and have threatened to sue on grounds that Bayfront's ties to the Catholics may violate its lease.

Last week, the hospital released its operating agreement with BayCare in hopes of proving it is not beholden to the church, but some council members say it raised more questions than it answered.

As the mediator, Overton's role will be to probe the positions of both sides and help them find points of agreement.

"The mediator is not going to solve this dispute, if it gets solved," City Attorney Mike Davis said. "The parties are going to solve it. The mediators are there to assist, and I think he'll be a good one."

Overton served on the state Supreme Court for 25 years. He now works for Upchurch, Watson and White Mediation Group in Orlando. Bayfront and the city will split his rate of $275 an hour.

Overton, who lives in Tallahassee, remains a senior judge on the Supreme Court. He has advocated mediation over litigation since the 1970s, and he is chairman-elect of the American Bar Association's standing committee on alternative dispute resolution.

He also is well known to representatives of both Bayfront and City Hall: Keane's first job out of law school was as his clerk, while one of the city's attorneys, Arthur England, also is a former Supreme Court justice who served with Overton for six years.

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