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After 33 years, Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett set to retire in July

Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett announced Monday that he will retire in six months after three decades working in county government. His last day will be July 30. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett announced Monday that he will retire in six months after three decades working in county government. His last day will be July 30. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 31, 2017

Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett, who spent three decades giving legal advice to county government and its leaders, announced Monday that he will retire in six months.

"My almost 33-year tenure with Pinellas County has been a great adventure," Bennett wrote in a letter to the county's commissioners and constitutional officers, "one of professional satisfaction, inspirational client relationships, and satisfying public service. In two words: a full career."

In a one-page letter, Bennett wrote "I have been blessed to work with incredible people and practice with and against inspiring lawyers." He has served as county attorney since 2007.

Bennett, 65, said it's time to join his wife and family and "to sit under our own vine and fig tree ... and to begin our next great adventure."

He could not be reached for comment Monday about his retirement. His last day will be July 30.

"I wish him the best in his future endeavors," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. He said Bennett served the commission and citizens well.

Commission chair Janet Long praised Bennett for his decades of service to taxpayers. But she said she was also concerned by the legal advice his office was providing to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

The board disciplines contractors but operates without any oversight. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that consumers and contractors alike felt unfairly treated by the board and a smaller subgroup that handles disciplinary matters. The agency also has issues addressing conflicts of interest and obeying public records law.

"The Tampa Bay Times raised significant issues about the lack of legal guidance at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board," Long said, "and I find it troubling."

Bennett has declined to discuss the advice his office has given the licensing board, citing attorney-client privilege. His retirement, Long said, gives the county the chance to find a replacement to deal with ongoing issues such as the way the agency operates.

"It's timely with what's going on," Long said. "Out of things like this comes great opportunities."

His resignation will test the new Pinellas County Charter amendment that voters approved in November. Voters created an oversight committee with power to hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. The committee will have seven county commissioners and the five county constitutional officers. The elected leaders are slated to meet next month to discuss the process to pick a new attorney.

A five-page memo outlines the advertising, recruitment and multiple rounds of interviews.

Human resources director Holly Schoenherr will interview the first group of all outside applicants and rank them as "lesser qualified, qualified and well qualified." All internal candidates will be placed in a separate group and the entire group will be referred to the commissioners and constitutional officers.

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Once candidates are narrowed, the commissioners and other constitutional officers will interview each candidate as a group.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the new charter amendment creates an opportunity for elected leaders to conduct a "far-reaching process" beyond looking only at internal candidates.

"It's an opportunity to look for a fresh set of eyes," Gualtieri said, wishing Bennett well. "It's a great opportunity for all of us who are responsible for selecting the new county attorney."

Elected leaders praised Bennett. Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke said Bennett has contributed greatly to the county, adding: "He will be missed."

Bennett is a graduate of Auburn University, the University of South Florida and Stetson University College of Law. He became the office's top deputy in 1994.

Bennett became the acting county attorney after the Pinellas County Commission fired his predecessor, Susan Churuti, over the Jim Smith land sale scandal. Smith, the former property appraiser, retired in 2008 under a cloud after the county spent $225,000 buying land from him, which was four times what his own office had valued the parcel at.

Churuti lost her job in 2007 after a grand jury found her handling of the Smith land sale "perplexing and misleading." Former county administrator Steve Spratt also ended up resigning. Bennett became the permanent county attorney in March 2008.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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