DUNEDIN — After hours of conducting interviews in recent weeks, city commissioners are on the verge of hiring a new city attorney.
Though they repeatedly said the choice was difficult, commissioners decided Aug. 26 to negotiate a contract for legal services with the Tampa firm of Bryant Miller Olive rather than continue to use their current firm, Trask Diegnault of Clearwater.
The decision follows interviews commissioners had individually as well as together with representatives from their four top-rated firms. The other two firms are Weiss Serota and Gray Robinson, both of Tampa.
Tom Trask has been city attorney since 2011. Under his firm's proposal, Randy Mora was to be the principal representative of the firm for handling the city's legal matters. Trask Diegnault also represents several other local municipalities.
Commissioners gave kudos to BMO’s attorneys and their work for other local governments.
Commissioner Heather Gracy said that BMO attorney Nikki Day is well-respected among her colleagues from other local governments and that she knew Day from her firm's activities with the Suncoast League of Cities.
"Their (BMO) work with the Suncoast League and Florida League is not to be underestimated by any stretch," she said.
Commissioner Moe Freaney said she feels comfortable with Day, who will be primarily responsible for services to the city with help from other attorneys. Day has devoted her career to advising local governments, serving as city attorney to Safety Harbor and assistant city attorney for Largo.
"I think she brings a lot of good skill sets. She's clearly got some great experience," Freaney said.
The city is being sued by a Dunedin homeowner who is facing $30,000 in fines and foreclosure actions for unmowed grass. The property has a long history of code violations, city officials say.
Although commissioners did not specifically criticize Trask's firm for its handling of the code enforcement issue that evening, Mayor Julie Bujalski alluded to the highly publicized controversy in the commission's discussion.
"We need a firm that is going to keep us from getting into lawsuits," she said, "and keep us from being exposed to liability. And frankly, keep us out of national headlines. I feel like those are some things that we have experienced so that we need a firm that is going to help us navigate the future," she said.
Nevertheless, she and commissioners praised Trask, whose firm represents several other local municipalities, as well as Mora.
"It's kind of heartbreaking even to consider a different firm," Bujalski said.
Though Commissioner Deborah Kynes picked Trask Diegnault as her top choice, as did Commissioner Jeff Gow, she said Day has an excellent reputation as does the firm's attorney Alan Zimmet, who is the attorney for the city of Largo and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Gow said those cities that have Bright Miller Olive as their firm felt "incredibly comfortable" with them.
"Between that comfort level, and the experience with my colleagues, I'm actually very happy to go with Bright Miller Olive," Gow said.
Stemming from a comment from a citizen, City Manager Jennifer Bramley was asked to discuss why the city wasn't considering having an in-house attorney instead of contracting for legal services.
Bramley listed a variety of costs involved that detract from the city taking that route, such as having to employee a paralegal and establish an office in house for the full-time position.
"There is a lot of overhead we can avoid," she said. "And a lot of recurring expenses year to year to year we can avoid in using a contract attorney," Bramley said.
Though they were initially split in their choice of attorneys, commissioners agreed unanimously at the end of the meeting to hire BMO.
"I've always been one up here who said when we are going to make a major decision, we should make it together," Kynes said.
Bujalski said she appreciated Kynes and Gow’s willingness to agree with the commission's majority in their selection of BMO.
"Makes me very proud," Bujalski said.
Based on the city's breakdown of costs, BMO's proposed retainer is $10,000 per month for covering two City Commission meetings, one Code Enforcement board meeting and one Planning Board meeting per month.
The retainer also applies to services such as drafting and reviewing ordinances, resolutions, memos and contracts and consultation with city commissioners, city manager and staff on normal day-to-day matters.
The firm's fees for special services, such as board-certified counsel, range from $125 per hour to $250 per hour.
Though they selected BMO to handle their legal matters, commissioners plan to honor Trask and his firm for their services to the city.
City Clerk Rebecca Schlichter, who was hired about a year ago, said as a new city clerk coming into the state, she appreciated Trask for being "fabulous with his advice every time I pick up the phone or send him an email."