BELLEAIR BEACH — Following through on a pledge made at the last council meeting to “bid this out,” City Council members joined Mayor Joseph Manzo in voting unanimously to get bids for the city attorney’s job. The action came at a special meeting called for that purpose, held prior to the May 20 workshop.
City Attorney Paul Marino, who had called the bid proposal “an attempt to terminate me,” was not present at the meeting. Marino has been Belleair Beach’s attorney for the past 20 years.
At the special meeting, council members quickly made and seconded a motion to advertise for legal services.
Council Member Rita Swope urged council to put off the attorney search.
“We’re pushing this through,” she said. “We need to slow this down.”
She said the cost of a city attorney “would likely go up if we go out for bids.”
Swope said Marino and his assistant should be allowed to make their case to keep the position.
Swope made an amended motion to discuss the city attorney issue at a later date and in another format. That motion failed for lack of a second.
Council Member Marvin Behm said going out for bid does not mean the city is looking for a new attorney but “we need to see what’s out there.”
Behm said Marino has been Belleair Beach’s attorney for 20 years and “we might have different needs today. There was an attorney’s fee of $50,000 associated with the Bellevue Estates Island undergrounding project,” Behm said. “We may need to get an attorney that can cut down on some of our costs.”
Vice Mayor Glenn Gunn said the real issue in going out for bids is “to see what else is out there.”
Manzo then took charge, telling why he believes the city attorney’s job should be put out for bids, and also why Marino will likely not be the top candidate to fill it.
Manzo said the city attorney serves at the pleasure of council, and can be terminated for any reason.
“No explanation is necessary,” he said. “There is nothing on the table for termination. Mr. Marino will continue to serve as counsel and advise us until something changes. He will either win a new term as our attorney or be replaced; it’s as simple as that.”
Manzo pointed out the city bids out contracted services as they come up. He mentioned engineering contracts and the Sheriff’s Office police agreement.
The new city council “wants to be good stewards of the city’s finances. We want to see what’s out there, what’s going on in other communities,” Manzo said.
Manzo then faulted Marino’s performance as city attorney, giving some examples of what he said were the attorney’s shortcomings.
A number of the city’s laws are unconstitutional, Manzo said, citing the parking and sign ordinances. Also, Manzo said the city’s website is not ADA-compliant.
These situations “leave us open to lawsuits, as other cities have faced,” Manzo said.
“There are people out there who will sue the city, and it will be a six-figure settlement,” he said.
Manzo faulted Marino for his conduct at council meetings, saying he continually interrupted to make comments, and tries to take over meetings.
“Council members have a right to speak; the attorney does not unless called upon,” Manzo said.
When Marino’s associate, attorney Jackie Bircher, was given a chance to speak, she said of Marino, “He has been nothing but tremendous to me, and a great font of legal knowledge.”
The reason for an attorney search by the city is to hire the best attorney, not necessarily the cheapest one, Manzo said. “We want the best value for the money, the best attorney for the money,” he said.
“If (Marino) is truly the best attorney in the county, the state, and the world, he will ace this exam with ease. He’s going to fly right through it and get reappointed. But if he’s not, and if there is someone else out there better, and even if they cost a little more, the council will be faced with a choice, between quality or price,” Manzo said.
The council voted unanimously, 7-0, to put the city attorney position out for bids. City Manager Lynn Rives said that would be done immediately, with a goal of having whoever is selected in the evaluation process in place by Aug. 1.