City's lawyer taking heat
By NICOLE HUTCHESON
Published May 3, 2007
Largo officials have delayed approval of a raise for city attorney Alan Zimmet, citing the ongoing property tax debate in the state Legislature, which is considering curtailing local government's revenues in 2007-08.
But in another sign of how City Manager Steve Stanton's departure continues to send reverberations through City Hall, at least two city commissioners said at Tuesday night's meeting that Zimmet didn't deserve the raise because of bad legal advice.
Commissioner Mary Gray Black, resurrecting a charge she first made during the March dismissal of Stanton, said Zimmet had given the city bad advice when he recommended a severance package that could extend past a specific fiscal year.
In another instant, Black said Zimmet advised the commission to enter into a lease that lasted longer than five years. Both are violations of the city's charter, Black said.
"I need to have confidence that the city attorney will keep me fully advised as to what the city charter requires me to do or not do when making legislative decisions, " Black said.
Commissioner Andy Guyette agreed with Black: "We need to follow the charter; the charter is the constitution, " he said. "And if we can't be guided properly by our attorney, then we're in real bad shape here."
But Zimmet defended his advice and said he believed neither issue violated the city's charter. The city contracted Zimmet in 1999 to handle the overflow of legal work that was coming into the city's full-time staff attorney's office.
Zimmet, who is the city's primary legal officer, is paid a yearly retainer of $106, 290 in addition to an hourly rate for litigation. Each year his contract is reviewed and pay increases are considered. Last year Zimmet received a 2.5 percent increase and a laptop computer. This year, city staff recommended an increase of 4 percent, which would bring Zimmet's yearly compensation to about $113, 305.
The commission was set to approve the increase at Tuesday's meeting. But the decision was met with hesitation in light of the ongoing debate in Tallahassee over property tax cuts. It is expected to be a month or more before local governments know if or how the state Legislature will curtail local governments' property tax revenue. Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said she expects the city will lose anywhere from $2- to $8-million in revenue in 2007-08 if the Legislature acts.
"I don't think anything is going to be safe, " Gerard said. "If the worst happens, everything will get cut."
Zimmet said he was not bothered by the commission's decision.
"I understand the situation given what's going on in Tallahassee and all the uncertainty with regard to the property taxes, " Zimmet said.
After responding to Black and Guyette's claims that he violated the city charter, the meeting turned tense when Commissioner Black continued questioning the Stanton contract.
Commissioner Rodney Woods asked: "Are we here discussing Mr. Stanton's contract or this contract with Mr. Zimmet?"
Black responded: "We're here to discuss the performance of our city attorney and now we're dealing with one area of his performance."
Black then began to read a section of the city charter's that pertained to severance pay.
Mayor Gerard told Black she was "out of order" and struck the gavel several times. Black continued reading from the charter, and Gerard then adjourned the meeting for a recess. After the commission returned to the dais, the commission agreed to take up Zimmet's pay increase in July, when the city begins preparing its own budget.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727445-4162.