City Council to interview attorney candidates…including their own (March 4 meeting synopsis with video attached)

On Friday afternoon, March 4 at 4:30 p.m. Mount Dora’s city council met in yet another special meeting to discuss the latest in their searches for replacement of existing staffing.

The primary topic was the review of the four proposals for legal services that were submitted in response to the council’s request that legal services be shopped around.  The topic has been on the back burner – but intended for review and discussion ever since December 1, 2015 when council member Mark Slaby made a motion to immediately dismiss City Attorney Cliff Shepard, for “fresh eyes.”

There are 20+ firms in Central Florida eligible and qualified to have applied for the job, through the Request for Proposal (RFP) that was let by the City.  Only four firms submitted proposals to the City of Mount Dora.  Fowler, O’Quinn, Feeney & Sneed P.A.; Shepard, Smith & Cassidy, P.A.; Vose Law Firm, LLP; and Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert and Whigham, P.A. were the applicants.  Each was required to present information that confirmed they could provide attorney services to the City by a lawyer who has earned city, county and local government certification.

Certification in city, county and local government law requires attorneys to have been at the practice of law for at least of five years, with substantial involvement in the specialty of city, county and local government law, as well as continuing education classes, peer review and a written exam.  The Florida Bar Association website says that board certification, “provides an objective measure that a potential client can rely upon when selecting a lawyer.”

Councilman Cal Rolfson opened the meeting’s discussion by bringing up his past experience as an attorney noting he had provided legal services for, “three cities, and I have represented government at the local, county, state and federal level.”  Rolfson went on to explain, that while he did not want special favors in consideration of his experience and background, he hoped that his opinions would at least be heard and considered.  Mayor Girone then quipped, “I hired an attorney once, so I have a little bit of experience, too.”

Rolfson said he believed that the Fowler firm should not be considered, as they did not supply appropriate proof of certification in the required field.  Councilwoman Tillett said she had noticed that as well, and had called the firm.  She said she was assured by telephone that the firm really did have a qualified attorney and so she felt they should be included in council’s consideration.

Mr. Rolfson also noted that the Stenstrom law firm only had one attorney, who was listed “of counsel” on the firm’s letterhead who was board certified.  Rolfson explained his concerns with that arrangement, saying he wasn’t sure of the relationship that the lawyer had with the firm – but that it was not as strong as that of an associate or partner – and therefore not as secure an arrangement for the City.  Rolfson also said he wanted to draw the council’s attention that another firm, the Vose firm, also only had one attorney that had “at counsel” relationship with the firm that was qualified – and that attorney had an unexplained 5-year hiatus on her resumé. Mayor Girone was impatient with the conversation about “at counsel” vs. an attorney directly employed by the firm and felt that conversation was irrelevant.

Conversation went back and forth among the members for some moments about potentially lowering the requirements as unnecessary, Mayor Girone and Tillett seeming particularly willing to lower the requirements within the RFP.

Rolfson, Rich and Slaby agreed that what had been set forth in the documents should be adhered to, minimally.

Mayor Girone argued that the council could simply waive requirements for certification.  He said he, like Tillett, had called the Fowler firm and wanted to interview them. Girone said the council has a right to waive or modify technicalities or irregularities.  Tillett agreed, especially since they only had a total of four applicants to consider.

Rolfson argued that if the firm, no matter how qualified, couldn’t submit a correct proposal, that eliminated them from consideration, in his view.  Rich agreed with Rolfson, saying that she was concerned if they were making errors of like that now, she imagined it could be worse once they worked for the city.

Mayor Girone declined to take public input until several of his council members, led by Mark Slaby, objected.  Two citizens spoke – one in favor of lowering the requirements and one in favor of honoring the language and proposals as submitted without exception.

Laurie Tillett moved to interview all four firms and Mark Slaby seconded the motion.  The motion was defeated 4-3 with Mayor Girone, Mark Slaby, Cal Rolfson and Marie Rich voting against.  Marc Crail, Ed Rowlett and Laurie Tillett voted yes.

Cal Rolfson made a motion to interview the three firms who met the minimum requirements according to the RFP (excluding Fowler, O’Quinn, Feeney & Sneed, P.A.).  The motion was seconded by council woman Rich and passed unanimously.

The council later decided that they would interview the three firms (including their own attorney) at a later date to be coordinated by staff.  The council will interview each firm individually, but they (the council) will interview them as a group in 30-45 minute sessions.

The other significant action taken was to extend Vince Pastue’s contract until the day before the new interim city manager, Kim Leinbach is to take his seat.  Rolfson made the motion and Rich seconded.  The motion passed unanimously.

As of now, the next council meeting is scheduled for March 15, 2016 in the City Hall board room.  If that changes, the Mount Dora Citizen will post updates.

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)