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County sees need for expert on water law

Commissioners agree they need a lawyer at Tampa Bay Water meetings. The only question is whether to make it a staff or consultant position.

David H. "Hap" Clark wants his fellow county commissioners to have plenty of backup when they attend Tampa Bay Water meetings every month.

Sending them to meetings without a savvy water lawyer, Clark said, would be like "sending the junior high team up against the high school varsity team."

His solution: a full-time water lawyer.

Commissioners, who greeted Clark's suggestion with enthusiasm, will discuss it at length during a strategy session later this month. The purpose of that session is to develop emergency backup plans in case Tampa Bay Water fails to meet its deadline for reducing groundwater pumping in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough _ a reduction of 37-million gallons a day by Dec. 31, 2002. Additional pumping reductions will be phased over several more years.

The commission's last water attorney was H. Clyde Hobby, who along with colleague Fred Reeves was paid nearly $1-million between 1995 and 1998 to represent Pasco on water issues. Hobby quit in May 1998, and his firm now represents Hillsborough County, which is slated to become the next "donor county" of water for the region.

His resignation also followed mounting criticism that work he'd done for private clients was contrary to the county's interests _ albeit permitted under the county's contract.

But commissioners agreed Tuesday that they need help to deal with what they see as a potential unraveling of the agreement that created the utility and ended the region's water wars. Hillsborough has requested arbitration on one planned water project, and Pasco is concerned that Tampa Bay Water won't meet its deadlines.

"I have asked for an in-house water attorney for years," Commission Chairwoman Pat Mulieri said, though she quickly added, "not for $1-million."

Mulieri is pushing for a new staff attorney to handle the water issues, while Commissioner Steve Simon, one of the board's liaisons to Tampa Bay Water, is leaning toward farming out the position to various consultants.

"I think that (an in-house attorney) is something you really need to consider, because I don't know if the need is going to be there in three or four years. The need is going to change," Simon said.

Commissioner Sylvia Young said she didn't care whether the expert is staff or a consultant: "We just need the best, whatever we do."

In other action, commissioners renewed their commitment to the Citizens Ordinance Review Committee, which has had problems with absenteeism. Rather than abandon the committee, commissioners agreed to replace those members who had resigned and encourage members to make the meetings.

The county also will send out a letter to customers of ABC Disposal, whose license to operation in Pasco was pulled last month, telling them to call other trash haulers to have trash bins left behind by ABC removed. So far, no solution has been found for customers who paid their bills in advance before the hauler lost its license, County Administrator John Gallagher said.