By DOTTY NIST
There has been no conclusion by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) on whether to hire a new in-house county attorney, enlist a firm for that purpose or to do a combination of the two. However, the commissioners have some time to evaluate what to do. This is due to current County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara expressing willingness to continue to serve the county on a part-time basis through March as she begins a new position with a firm in Tallahassee.
Hoshihara had recently announced her resignation effective Dec. 30, and the BCC had begun advertising for new legal representation On Dec. 9.
The commissioners held a Dec. 13 special meeting on the topic of the Office of the County Attorney at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
The advantages and disadvantages of legal representation by an in-house attorney versus a law firm were discussed. The county has had experience with both situations in recent years. District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander was concerned that fees could “get out of hand” with representation by a law firm. She suggested hiring an in-house county attorney with management experience who could handle some cases and assign other cases to contract attorneys or special counsel. She further suggested hiring an in-house staff attorney to handle “day-to-day small items.” “A lot of the public likes to see a body,” Comander noted.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones said her first priority would be to have a county staff attorney who would be “on duty 24-7.” She added that she had liked the previous situation with a county staff attorney in the Office of the County Attorney and an attorney from a legal firm at the top—with set salaries and a guarantee from the legal firm attorney that they would handle most of the cases and that few cases would be “farmed out.”
Hoshihara revealed that Walton Couty is currently involved in 30 active legal cases, with half of those being handled either by representation from the county’s insurance companies or by the Florida League of Cities. Ten cases are being handled by local attorneys and five by Nabors Giblin & Nickerson in Tallahassee, she noted.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones suggested waiting to see what kind of responses the county gets to its advertising before deciding whether to go with an in-house attorney, a legal firm, or a mixture of the two.
County Administrator Greg Kisela agreed that control of fees is important but commented on the difficulty of getting a cost estimate from law firms on a case until the firms know what the extent of the litigation will be.
The commissioners gave direction to staff to continue with advertisements for legal representation. Kisela thought a realistic timetable was to plan on having someone in place for this purpose between Feb. 15 and March 1.
He indicated that at the Jan. 19 BCC meeting he would present the commissioners with a process for evaluation both of individuals and of legal firms who had responded to the advertising.
Turning to the issue of interim legal representation, Kisela suggested that attorneys and firms being considered to represent the county on a permanent basis should not also be enlisted for representation on a temporary or interim basis. In this way, everyone competing for the job would be doing so an equal basis, he explained.
Cecilia Jones asked what options were available to the county for interim legal representation.
Kisela responded that Hoshihara had indicated willingness to serve an additional 60 days, through March 1, on a part-time basis, in order to provide the BCC with time to line up new legal representation.
Hoshihara commented that her new employer had also agreed to the offer. She suggested spending several days a week with Walton County during the transition. Part of the offer was the understanding that her salary would be at the same level but prorated according to the number of days per week spent with the Office of the County Attorney. Hoshihara said that the advantage of the plan would be that the county would have just one and not two transitions for legal representation.
“It’s a smooth way of handling it,” agreed Comander. She motioned for approval, and the motion carried with all aye votes from the four commissioners present.
Bob Hudson of the Walton County Taxpayers Association commented that good legal representation is important “in this day and age of litigation.” He continued with the observation that legal expenses shown in the Walton County budget are a relatively small part of the county’s spending on legal work. He gave the example of charges to Walton County by the county’s prior legal representation, Burke & Blue, for the reading of the same e-mail by several of the firm’s attorneys. The cost of getting an e-mail opened can run into a couple hundred dollars, he told the commissioners. Hudson said he hoped that details of this kind were being examined as the commissioners evaluated what to about legal representation.
Kisela responded that five years of records were available and could be provided to commissioners in their evaluation of the type of legal representation to go with. He said an analysis of true costs could be provided, allowing for a comparison between the options being considered.