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ATTORNEY SELECTED, BUT BARBS FLY

A mix-up and its outcome ruffle a few feathers.

The audience jeered, commissioners fumed and when a meeting marked with arguments and outbursts ended, the city had a new attorney.

The main point of contention was not the contract on the agenda, but the name on the bottom of it.

"This whole thing smells. It stinks. If you talk about people thinking there's a conspiracy out there ... the whole thing's a sham," Mayor Ward Friszolowski said during Tuesday's commission meeting.

Attorney Ralf Brookes was scheduled to sign his contract with the city after being announced as the commission's first choice for the position. But after Commissioner Mike Finnerty went to City Manager Mike Bonfield with concerns over how he had been selected, it became clear that a mistake was made.

The commission had agreed to rank the applicants for the position of city attorney one through four in order of their preference. The scores were to be added up, the lowest being the commission's first choice.

The tally sheets were given to City Clerk Teresa McMaster; seeing that three commissioners had ranked Brookes first she announced him the winner.

It was later discovered that attorney Michael Davis, who previously represented the city of St. Petersburg for nearly two decades, had the lowest score.

Brookes had come in second.

Commissioners Linda Chaney, Ed Ruttencutter and Harry Metz, who had all chosen Brookes as their first choice, voted to approve his contract anyway.

Finnerty and Friszolowski protested the decision, saying Davis should be the city attorney and breaking from the agreed upon selection method would breed distrust with the residents.

Much of the boisterous audience seemed to agree.

"When it didn't turn out the way they wanted, they just changed the rules and to me that seemed unethical," said Melinda Pletcher, a resident who attended the meeting.

"I would say that it was obvious that three out of the five commissioners wanted a certain attorney to be No. 1 and the point system only seemed to confuse the issue. So I don't think it's a matter of trust. I think it's an issue of following our city charter," Chaney said.

Several heated exchanges followed, including a suggestion by Friszolowski that Finnerty is likely to be elected as the city's next mayor. Ruttencutter, who is also running for the position, brought up the race while defending his decision, implying that if the commission chose Davis and Finnerty loses the upcoming mayor's race, Davis would be working for a panel that did not support him.

Finnerty later said that the suggestion that he might not be around after the election was pompous and that the exchange had won him further support.

"People were calling me up asking for signs and donating money to my campaign that were on the fence before," he said.

When the arguing subsided, Brookes addressed the commission regarding several points of his contract, including his refusal to place a monthly cap on what he bills the city. He suggested that his flat hourly rate of $130 would likely save the city money in the long run.

Brookes also defended the commission's decision to select him with a majority vote as opposed to the point system, saying that would usually be done only to narrow the field of selection.

"It was apparent what happens when they don't have an existing city attorney sitting with them," Brookes said of the meeting.

"I'm sorry there was dissension. I'm sure once they get to know me they will be very comfortable with the decision."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

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