Lonnie Groot Named Mount Dora City Attorney

The marathon council meeting addressed equal rights, trees, utility rates, and a fractious Christmas tree en route to selecting its new city attorney. 

Close to midnight on the Ides of March—while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were celebrating their primary elections wins in Florida—Mount Dora’s council completed a spring cleaning by choosing another firm to handle its city attorney services.

With the departure of Cliff Shepard, Mount Dora’s city attorney for the past 10 years, City Hall now has a clean slate among its senior professional staff. Attending last night’s meeting was the last official act for departing city manager Vincent Pastue, and planning and development director Mark Reggentin took an economic development position in Apopka on March 4.

Interim city manager Kim Leinbach begins his tenure with the city on March 16.

Half the night’s marathon meeting was taken with a large and at times controversial plate of old and new business, while the other half was taken up with hour-long interviews with the three candidates for city attorney. The night ended with what should have been a decision by secret ranking of the firms and then a vote, but saw council’s wheels come off again with fierce emotion.

With talk of elves and Grinches and Hatfields and McCoys evading pleas for calmer discourse, it was clear that the divisions in council—despite many 7-0 decision that night— are running just as deep.

* * *

The plan had been to zip through all of the night’s agenda except the interviews by 7 p.m. Things got off smoothly enough with Mayor Girone presenting Mark Crail and Laurie Tillett with certifications they recently received for completing elected official training.

A second reading of the proposed Equal Rights Ordinance breezed through without controversy, with council voting 7-0 in support and a firm round of applause from the gallery. “We’re one of the first in the area, the state and the nation to do this,” Girone said, “and we’re proud to be a part of it.”

Next came approval of the controversial water and wastewater rate hike critical for the $30 million in utilities infrastructure work on the looming horizon.  Council was not in favor of the initial one-time, 22% rate hike proposed by staff, instead opting to roll out 12.7 and 12.9% increases over two years. But that suggestion too became at risk when Ed Rowlett moved to table the decision for the night. He wanted more scrutiny to be placed on whether the proposed $8 million in line extensions out to the Innovation District could be funded in some other way. He didn’t think homeowner should be burdened with the cost of what at another council meeting he called “a pipe dream.” “We have no news yet of any business coming in (to the innovation district,” he added.

However, Pastue pointed out that council had already spent three prior meetings hashing this out and time was simply running out: The rate increase goes into effect on April 1, and further delay would mean having to do another rate study, conduct public hearings, etc., all of which would impact the eventual rate even harder.

Mark Slaby pointed out items covered in the rate increase felt hadn’t been adequately analyzed like the biosolids treatment plant and Thrill HIll reclaimed water reservoir, and suggested perhaps the new city manager should look at these things again. Tillett agreed. “We’ve got to take another shot at this,” she said. “There must be other ways to pay for this long-term capital.” Rowlett suggested funding the innovation district utility line extension with more bonds.

As at the last council meeting, staff again tried to explain the nature of how the city’s finances work. Cliff Shepard: We currently have about a $25 thousand balance for an $8 million dollar debt. Mount Dora is already issuing $10-$14 million in bonds. No one will issue bonds if we have no cash balance.

Rowlett felt the bond issue had never been adequately discussed before, and Crail again suggested these things be taken up with the new city manager. (Clip of Council discussion on this issue below.)

At this point Pastue turned angry. “I’m insulted,” he said, waving off Girone’s attempt to calm him down. “Look: When you issue city bonds, you can’t use that money for operations. City managers go to jail for doing that. Bonds cannot be used to pay for our operational shortfalls.”

Discussion went on about lowering rates somehow, maybe taking the first year dent down to 8 percent (Tillett). But in the end, with the operational deficit looming right on the the city’s doorstep, council voted down the motion to delay discussion and approved the rate increase 6-1, with Tillett dissenting.

* * *

Shepard updated council again on the ongoing work to update the city’s Public Arts ordinance. (Epic Theater is held up while they dispute a requirement in the ordinance that they make a donation to public arts.) Shepard reiterated that the two options he was advising council to take was that the fee paid by non-residential (commercial) entities be eliminated, and that percentage contribution for residential developers be reduced to .5%.

Crail suggested a “Plan C” of finding another funding source than either of Shepard’s proposals. “I didn’t suggest this because I don’t have the liberty to suggest,” Shepard responded. He reiterated that he was trying to help council get a resolution with Epic Theater as soon as possible. (This sort of dialogue between the city attorney and council would be stressed in the interviews later that night.). Council ended up tabling discussion of the public arts ordinance until getting feedback on it from the public arts and planning and zoning committees.

For new business, council considered a $30,000 grant request from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Customer Service for the purpose of breaking ground on the city’s new tree initiative. The money would go toward a detailed inventory of trees in the public right-of-way and in public places, conduct community education workshops, aid in the development of a City Tree Committee and help facilitate development of a comprehensive urban forest plan. The funds would be added to $50,000 already added to the city’s budget for a tree program. One of the things Pastue accomplished in the seven-day extension of his employment was the preparation of the grant request. (For a deeper look into both the background and forward steps on the tree program, see the March 15 post “Mount Dora’s Chautauqua Brand.” )

Although at the time of that writing, Mark Slaby said he would be expressing additional thoughts about the tree program at the March 15 meeting, he simply asked if the tree inventory would not only tally existing trees but also indicate where space was available for planting trees.

Little else was said and council approved the grant request 7-0.

Two requests to approve running events in May –the Lutheran Counseling Services Family Run and the Twilight 5K Run for Thursday–were approved 7-0.

The last of the new business was consideration of a long-term approval of the 40-foot musical Christmas tree placed at Fourth Avenue Pedestrian Mall by Main Street Leasing (MSL). The tree originally was put up in a gravel lot owned by MSL on Fifth Avenue and had been in the 4th Avenue pedestrian mall for several years.

It became one of the more impassioned exchanges of the night, with merry Christmas elves on both sides accusing the other side of playing Grinch. Marie Rich made the motion to extend the contract to MSL from 2016 to 2020 for the location, effusing about the holiday good-time feel of the tree, the warm reception by merchants and the vast opportunity presented for taking pictures. Cal Rolfson said when volunteering for a Lake Cares Food Pantry benefit hot chocolate stand, the positive feedback from visitors about the tree was overwhelming. He warned that if the contract wasn’t renewed, another city like Eustis could end up with the tree.

Tillett said she loved all that but had concerns about safety—the tree so close to traffic on Alexander and 4th—suggesting placing the tree instead in Sunset Park. She also said that the tree’s current location prevented the horse-carriage vendor from operating there, and the taxpayer had already paid for a parking area for that carriage that couldn’t now be used. There is currently no carriage service in Mount Dora.  (The Mount Dora Citizen contacted the company who previously provided carriage rides or “hacking” in the city.  Renee, with the company, said they discontinued carriage rides in the city, saying it was no longer financially feasible for them to operate in Mount Dora.  There simply was not enough business to make it viable for them to operate on a regularly scheduled basis.  However, she also said they will happily still come for individual special events and weddings, upon individual request. Renee also made it clear that they have, in the past, quite easily worked around the Christmas tree – and that it was not a hindrance in any way.)

When Rich heatedly suggested that Tillet’s comments had more to do with background resentments against Main Street Leasing, council’s cracks came out again. Rowlett said the pedestrian mall was never meant to be taken up by a Christmas tree display for three months of the year, and that Main Street Leasing’s signage around the tree gave them 96 feet of free advertising. Rolfson said that since MSL had spent more than $100,000 creating the tree and picked up all the expense for thing like electricity, he didn’t see how their getting a little advertising out of it hurt the city at all. Rowlett wondered if it was fair to give the space so readily to Main Street Leasing without letting other downtown merchants have the opportunity to do so. Girone said the tree was beautiful but in the wrong spot. (Video of protracted – one hour-plus deliberation over Christmas tree in pedestrian mall.)

Mark Slaby began with “Ho, ho, ho,” asserting he was no Grinch. “I’m not experienced in this, but it is the thing people bend my ears about most when I’m downtown.” He suggested a number of alternate locations, including Evans Park or the marina.

Several called for a delay, but council was getting to this item late, perhaps due to all the delays in city business while addressing both the city manager and city attorney. There wasn’t much window for waiting. Girone complained about being forced too soon to make the decision, wishing there were time for he, the new city manager and Main Street Leasing to get together and hash it out.

Public comment ran the gamut on Main Street Leasing. One called the tree “nothing more than a tax write-off” for the downtown landlord and wondered what kind of constitutional flack the city might be facing over use of a religious object. Another said it was a slight to the other merchants downtown to allow MSL to advertise at all around their tree, and complained that the lion’s share of money in the streetscape project went to blocks where MSL was the majority property owner. Others talked about how much good will the tree had created for Mount Dora in the larger Central Florida community, the long support of Main Street Leasing for holiday events, and how the current location was best for taking pictures.

But, like the water and wastewater utilities rate increase and the tree grant request, time was simply running out to wait and council spending more time deliberating contrary to staff recommendations. In the most conflicted decision of the night, council voted 4-3 to extend the contract, with the provision that Mount Dora be added as additionally insured on Main Street Leasing’s Insurance policy.

Running by then almost an hour later than planned, council adjourned to prepare for the attorney interviews.

Candidates for city attorney interview with council
Candidates for city attorney interview with council

Council took a moment to thank Vince Pastue for his service as city manager, and he got a round of applause as he left the room and Mount Dora City Hall for good.

Next they began a three-hour session interviewing the three attorneys and their firms bidding on the city’s request for a quote on city attorney services. (For details about how the city got to this point, see “Mount Dora Council Considers City Attorney Contract.“) Out of four bids received, three had passed the minimum requirement of offering services of an attorney board-certified in local government law: Cliff Shepard of Shepard, Smith & Cassidy PA; Lonnie Groot, of counsel representative of Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert & Wigham; and Karen Consalo, of counsel representative of Vose Law Firm.

First up was Cliff Shepard along with partner Drew Smith, also a board-certified attorney in local government law and a replacement suggested by Shepard if council wished to retain the services of his firm but with a different attorney. Second was Lonnie Groot of Stenstrom, McIntosh, Cobert & Wigham, along with principal partner Bill Cobert. And joining Karen Consalo of Vose Law firm was principal partner Gretchen Vose and managing partner Wade Vose.

With no apparent significant cost difference in their proposed fee ($155-$150 an hour), council focused for the most part on the candidates’ experience in city law and litigation, mitigation of costs, and asked for examples of how they had handled specific situations in city business.

Cal Rolfson probed into why the two firms competing with Shepard had contract attorneys as their recommended lead. As it turns out, board certification in local government is relatively new, and attorneys working longer in the field have banked on their experience to get them similar city attorney jobs. The question of how long city attorneys serve seemed to be (as long as they get along with council—30 years for some jobs, months for others.) He also asked about the amount of malpractice insurance they carried. (Shepard’s firm has $5 million while the other firms have $2 million.)

Rowlett was curious about the applicants CRA experience. Cliff Shepard is president of the Florida Redevelopment Association, but both Groot and Consalo had worked extensively with them. Rowlett also asked the Vose representatives on their experience with bond issues.

Mark Crail and Laurie Tillett asked questions that seemed to look for alternatives in how the city attorney works with council. Crail asked the candidates to describe a situation where they had worked with council on an issue only to find that council went against their recommendations. Tillett wondered how they would handle issues with council that were legally risky but politically popular.

(Since neither offered any explanation for the reasoning behind their questions, we could look to recent comments by former council member and local attorney James Homich—considered by many as one of the leading background voices with this new council—about important criteria for city attorney.  “We need a law firm that provides sound independent legal advice regarding all potential options and allows the city council to decide based upon that advice,” he said.)

Girone asked the applicants how they balance cost with service. He also asked about handling appeals on land development code.

Slaby asked Shepard about what he’d done in other cities, then asked the other applicants why they thought Mount Dora might be looking for another attorney. (He also asked them to talk about something they wish they would have been asked—it provoked some thoughtful responses.)

Rich asked how they would handle split votes on council and handle different council compositions

A rough comparison of the candidates’ responses showed comparable legal knowledge and experience.

Shepard had the most local experience and institutional knowledge to speak of, and stressed the importance of never taking sides with council. He said it was important to remember that he plays no public role (“it’s my job to make sure the city does not get sued and lose.”) Pointing to work he’d done with councils of a different mind than his recommendations, he talked about the City of Apopka’s invocation policy. Apopka was adamant to keep the practice despite Supreme Court guidance to the contrary, and he’d worked to make it the most legally defensible. He also touched on the $2.1 million in savings to the city recouping on utility impact deposits that were not collected from Sullivan Ranch—without heading into litigation.

Bill Colbert spoke for most of the Lonnie Groot interview and his 45 years of experience with city government was impressive, especially his stints as the city attorney for Sanford and Oviedo. Colbert spoke of major litigation in Sanford versus Seminole County over land use that sided with the city after a state Supreme Court judgment, and how their CRA efforts were helping Sanford develop their downtown. Groot talked about bringing the deeply flawed charter of Lake Helen up to a standard that had never seen litigation. Colbert also stressed the vital importance of their collaborative work between council and staff, and did a pretty good job assessing the overall health of Mount Dora based on his “due diligence.”

Though Karen Consalo is the at-counsel board-certified attorney offered by Vose Law Firm, managing partner Wade Vose would be the principal attorney for Mount Dora with Consalo as his second.  Wade and his mother Gretchen, founder of Vose Law Firm, handled most of the questions. The firm also has worked extensively in city government law and has handled many attorney transitions. Wade Vose talked about the work they’d done with the City of Ana Maria in getting a difficult ordinance controlling vacation rentals through with minimum litigation. Consalo seemed to misfire a couple of times in her responses, saying she had never had a council go against her recommendations (“my arguments come in bullet-proof”) and that her own firm needed no malpractice insurance because their practice was so successful.

Each interview fleshed out greatly the proposals, with the result that all firms seemed well-qualified for the job and were offering the same services for an equivalent rate. The only major difference between the bids was the sum of Cliff Shepard’s institutional knowledge and experience with the city.

How much would council be impressed with this?  In his earlier comments, Homich also spoke about the relative value of a city attorney’s comprehensive experience and information gathered during employment tenure: “I reject entirely the argument that a firm needs any ‘institutional knowledge’ to provide sound legal advice as each new problem is a unique new set of facts.”

Toward the end of their meeting, discussion over the city attorney bid became tense.
Toward the end of their meeting, discussion over the city attorney bid became tense.

After a break and with the hour fast approaching midnight, council’s plan was to fill out secret rankings of their 1-2-3 preference. But before they could get to that, Cal Rolfson asked for time to make his observations. He pointed out the limitations of the other two bids for experience (only one board certified attorney at Vose as well as Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert & Wigham, where Shepard’s firm had four), and that neither were partners on the firms they were representing. He then recapped the depth of qualified experience at Shepard, Smith & Cassidy PA, the contributions Shepard had made to the city and his unblemished record of litigation. “There is no reason why we should be letting him go, he said. “I don’t know if this is the result of a campaign promise, but he has served us well. The only reason for change is council’s desire to change.”

After public comment, Slaby came back irritated with Rolfson’s speech, comparing his nitpicking over qualifications to nitpicking over qualifications of council members to govern, as Crail and Rolfson did not represent an elected result and Rich had not won her election. (She and Girone had tied in the 2014 at-large race, and her name was pulled from a hat.) “All three firms were minimally qualified,” he said. “All three firms deserve a fair shake.” (Below is clip of last 14:27 minutes of meeting, in which council member Slaby reads a position statement, Marie Rich leaves the meeting early after heated exchange and council votes to hire Lonnie Groot as their new city attorney.)

Visibly enraged at Slaby’s comment about the legitimacy of her election, Marie Rich left council chambers.

Slaby continued, saying the departure of other city officials —Pastue, Reggentin, Gus Gianikas—was not due to his termination; however he did take responsibility for the current decision. “I got voted in because people wanted to be treated fairly, he said, “to clear the slate and start over. We do what we think is best. If citizens disagree, in two years they can vote us all out. We are not being silly. The water is running and the lights are on. It’s not about people and processes, it’s about the product—the city.”

Rolfson went back to Slaby about his insulting comments about other council members.

Slaby replied that he hadn’t meant to be insulting, only saying that Roflson’s nitpicking at the attorney candidates’ qualifications was comparable to nitpicking about the qualifications of  Mount Dora’s council.

Girone tried to step in and make peace, reiterating again that council was getting through trying times. “All of you have been elected and deserve to be here,” he said. Speaking to the audience, he said, “remember, Sunshine law prohibits us from talking to each other anywhere else but here.” He again asked for council to choose their words with care.

With that, rankings were collected and tallied. Lonnie Groot with was council’s first choice, followed by Shepard and Consalo.

Without a city attorney present for their end discussion, it was Rolfson who pointed out that any contract for attorney services would need to be approved by the city attorney first.

Council then voted 5-1 to award the contract to Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert & Wigham, with the provision that Shepard approve the contract before returning it to council for their signature – Rolfson voted against the motion – after suggesting that council should, at the very least have their attorney review the contract before signing. Marie Rich did not return to council that night.

At 11:59:50 council adjourned for the night, and seconds later the Ides of March had passed.

David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)