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HILLSBOROUGH REFERENDUM

Chain of command: Who should the county attorney report to? The seemingly bureaucratic issue is a hot topic after the former county administrator found his hands tied.

By BILL VARIA
Published October 26, 2004

After wading through the candidates and a string of state constitutional questions, Hillsborough County voters will have one more choice to make on the November ballot.

And it will probably come across as a little arcane, though county commissioners say it's important.

The ballot will ask whether the county's charter - its own constitution of sorts - should be changed to make the county attorney report directly to county commissioners. In recent years, the chain of command has been somewhat murky.

Historically, the county attorney has reported to the county administrator, who can hire and fire that person only with the advice and consent of commissioners. That presented a problem last year.

Former County Attorney Emmy Acton was facing allegations that she was treating employees poorly and misusing an office fund. Her boss, then-County Administrator Dan Kleman enjoyed less political support among commissioners than Acton, so he was tentative in addressing the situation.

Complicating the matter, Acton brandished an old legal opinion from former County Attorney Fred Karl that said the county administrator had little oversight, if any, over her office. The idea behind this was to give the county attorney more autonomy in rendering legal opinions.

Commissioners accepted that interpretation and the rancor in Acton's office festered as Kleman found himself without the authority to address it.

"This created quite a bit of controversy and turmoil," said Commission Chairman Tom Scott, who proposed changing the charter to make the chain of command clearer. "This brings clarity out of confusion, understanding out of chaos."

However, a newer interpretation from an outside attorney concluded the administrator clearly does oversee the attorney in terms of general supervision, while giving the attorney autonomy, mainly over legal decisions.

Commissioner Jan Platt, an opponent of the charter change, called it a "power grab." She said it undermines the county administrator, who needs to be able to consult with the attorney without commission interference. The current charter was created in response to a 1980s bribery scandal, she notes.

"That was the intent of the charter, to keep county commissioners out of the day-to-day operations of county government," Platt said. "To put the county attorney under seven political members of the board will politicize the office."

Most counties have their attorney report to the commission, so current attorney Renee Lee said she won't have a problem with a change if voters approve it. She's worked that way before.

Current County Administrator Pat Bean said that she'd prefer to keep the current system in place. "But I can do either," she said.

REFERENDUM TEXT

VOTE YES OR NO

Purpose: Amends charter Article VI changing selection and supervision of County Attorney from Administrator to Commission.

Shall Article VI of the Hillsborough County Charter be amended to change the selection and supervision of the County Attorney from the County Administrator to the selection and direction of the Hillsborough County Commission and that selection of special attorneys for specific matters, including bond and disclosure counsel, be upon the recommendation of the County Attorney?

[Last modified October 24, 2004, 12:57:11]

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