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City turns to familiar face for attorney

(ran West, Beach, Seminole editions)

It appears that interim City Attorney Jim Denhardt is about to become Pinellas Park's permanent legal representative.

Council members unanimously directed City Manager Mike Gustafson to negotiate a contract with Denhardt, who won the approval of a selection committee over three other candidates for the job.

If Denhardt and Gustafson fail to agree, the city manager would negotiate with the second lawyer on the list, Thomas Trask of Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt and Trask.

But council members clearly expect a contract to be hashed out with Denhardt.

At Tuesday's workshop, two days before the council voted for Gustafson to open negotiations, Council member Sandra Bradbury expressed her pleasure with the choice.

"Unofficially, I think that we need to welcome Jim and (his assistant) Chris (Hammonds) to our family. I think that there's a . . .," she started before being interrupted by Mayor Bill Mischler.

"It's not official yet," Mischler said.

Bradbury: "I said unofficially."

Council member Patricia Bailey-Snook: "You can't do that until the city manager . . ."

Mischler joked about eventually giving Denhardt a city shirt.

Denhardt: "Well, I would unofficially thank you."

Bradbury: "It'll be official when they do their little negotiations and all that stuff."

Denhardt has served as interim city attorney since March, when he was appointed after the death of longtime City Attorney Ed Foreman. Denhardt had been the prosecuting attorney for Pinellas Park's code board.

Hammonds had been Foreman's assistant for the preceding year and a half but was unable to take over as city attorney because he did not have the three years' experience required by the city charter.

At his death, Foreman was earning $161.65 per hour as city attorney. His monthly billings accounted for the bulk of Pinellas Park's legal budget, which was $612,675 for the 2003-04 fiscal year. The smaller portion of the city's legal budget _ about $73,175 _ went for labor and code attorneys.

At the time, Denhardt was earning $160 per hour as code board prosecuting attorney. But council members reduced that to $142.50 per hour when he was made interim city attorney. That was at the high end of the $90-$150-per-hour range that Gustafson said was average for municipal attorneys in the bay area.

The cost of legal advice had prompted the council to suggest legal services should be handled differently in the future. They suggested placing the city attorney on retainer, as before, but hiring an in-house assistant city attorney.

That proposal made a huge difference in the 2004-05 budget, which shows a projected 44.3 percent drop in legal costs, with $140,000 estimated for the city attorney, a salary of $76,154 for the assistant and an additional $7,170 salary for a staff assistant. The new fiscal year begins Friday.

But that's not the way things will work out, city spokesman Tim Caddell said.

There will be no in-house, salaried assistant city attorney because there were "complications" in having a salaried employee supervised by a contract employee.

Thus, the arrangement will resemble the deal the city had with Foreman: a contract with Denhardt's firm. Denhardt will supply the assistant city attorney, presumably Hammonds, at some hourly rate, Caddell said.

The details will be worked out during negotiations, Caddell said.

Denhardt, 58, was admitted to practice in 1973 and has represented several municipalities, including Redington Shores and Treasure Island.

Denhardt was criticized heavily in Treasure Island, however, for failing to prevent commissioners from adopting a 2002 ordinance allowing taller beachfront buildings. The ordinance was thrown out and Denhardt lost his job last May after 17 years representing Treasure Island.

Information from Times files was used in this report.

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