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Cities may fire their legal eagle

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published March 28, 2007


April could be a bad month for Timothy Driscoll, a St. Petersburg lawyer who soon could be fired by both of the cities he represents.

In St. Pete Beach, some residents partly blame him for the city's recent development battle. In Gulfport, city officials are looking to downsize, and his job could be among the first to go.

Driscoll's seemingly bad luck in both cities points to how tough it can be for part-time city attorneys, city officials said.

Serving as a city attorney might seem like a quick way to earn money on the side, but duties include wading through endless pages of Florida statutes, being available to give advice to city officials, attending long meetings and dealing with the sometimes tumultuous aftermath of elections, all while getting paid less than their corporate counterparts, attorneys say.

"Every city attorney understands they are only the city attorney from meeting to meeting because at any time the city commission or the city council can decide they no longer have faith or trust in you," said Thomas J. Trask, a Dunedin lawyer who represents Belleair Bluffs and Oldsmar. "We know there is always the possibility that we won't be the city attorney forever."

Those who want to get rid of Driscoll argue that he is not a victim.

"He is a nice person and all that, and I don't think anybody would disagree with that, but we have had some trouble with him," said Gulfport council member Bob Worthington.

Driscoll did not return several requests for comment.

City attorneys for Belleair and Treasure Island have been replaced in recent years after contentious disagreements broke out.

In St. Pete Beach, Driscoll's services could be on the chopping block after about three years in the position.

He was hired after the city's former attorney, James DeVito, resigned in 2003 after 34 years of employment.

At first, Driscoll was praised as a smart, capable lawyer with extensive experience. He has served as the city attorney in Gulfport since 1990, provided legal services to the Pinellas County Mayor's Council, and has represented city commissioners in Pinellas Park and Redington Beach.

When St. Pete Beach's development battle over whether to allow taller buildings became ugly two years ago, the city named several residents in a lawsuit over the debate. Driscoll took the fall as the man who pursued legal action against the residents, some said.

Newly elected City Commissioner Harry Metz, who was named in the lawsuits, made it his first order of business as a city official to discuss replacing Driscoll on Tuesday night.

Metz asked the City Commission to prepare a resolution that would start the application process. Metz asked that applicants turn in their resumes by April 6 and that the decision be made by April 23. Driscoll could apply for the job as well, Metz said.

"I am not asking to fire him; I am just looking to see if there is a better qualified person around," Metz said. "It is not personal."

Driscoll has not been responsive to residents at city meetings and has lost several important cases for the city, said Metz, who often sparred with the City Commission before he was elected.

But Mayor Ward Friszolowski said hiring a new attorney could disrupt the city's legal process. Lawsuits filed by the city are scheduled to go to court next month.

"What everyone has to realize is that if they didn't like the policy direction of the former commission members, they shouldn't blame the city attorney for that," he said. "Tim has been a good city attorney, and they should allow him the time to get to know him since they are new."

Gulfport hired Driscoll just five years after he graduated from Stetson University College of Law in that city in 1985.

In 2005, he stepped down from representing the city in a zoning issue after some residents complained that he had not defended the city aggressively enough.

Later that year, Worthington called for a vote on whether the city should replace Driscoll. The City Council opted to keep him.

But Worthington, who voted against Driscoll, said the counselor is still slow to return calls and sometimes seems to give questionable legal advice.

More recently, city officials have said they are contemplating hiring a full-time attorney and reducing the city clerk staff.

But council member John "Ted" Phillips said he has already gotten used to Driscoll. Phillips used to be upset when Driscoll didn't call him back quickly enough, but after a stern talking to, Phillips said, it was taken care of.

"Now, if I had a problem and I call him, he helps me out right away."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.