County attorney to retire; search on for successor

Published May 23, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Pasco County attorney Robert Sumner will retire at the end of 2007, triggering an outside search to replace one of the county's most influential advisers.

But the focus began inside the county Tuesday. Sumner, 71, endorsed chief assistant county attorney Barbara Wilhite as his successor as he announced the end of his nearly eight-year tenure at the commission meeting.

Despite Sumner's pick, County Commissioner Michael Cox won a unanimous vote to do an outside search for the job.

A committee of County Administrator John Gallagher, Sumner and Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand - a friend of Wilhite and her family - will pick five to seven finalists for consideration. Commissioners make the hire.

"I think we owe it to residents to do an outside search. She's obviously a contender for the job, " Cox said afterward, referring to Wilhite.

"One of the things that is important is that we re-establish a good working relationship between the county attorney's office and the administration, " Cox said, "and that clearly doesn't occur now."

Sumner and Gallagher - who both answer to the commission, not to each other - have sparred privately over policy issues. But their disagreements rarely spill into public meetings.

"Bobby and I, on certain occasions, have disagreed on issues, " Gallagher said Tuesday. "Sometimes that's healthy, sometimes that's not."

Cox chastised Wilhite shortly after Sumner broke the news of his retirement. The commission was considering suing private engineers over failing public roads in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood in Trinity. A memo Wilhite prepared offered several options but did not make a recommendation, which the office often does.

"It seems like you pick and choose when to make a recommendation and when you don't make a recommendation, " Cox said. "I believe we pay you to make a recommendation."

Afterward, Wilhite said the omission was a mistake. "You learn from your mistakes, " said Wilhite, 36, who said she will seek Sumner's post.

Wilhite's work has been called "high quality" in job reviews since she started in 1996. In 2005, Sumner's review stated, "Barbara will be a great county attorney someday."

But a review in 2002 said Wilhite needed to delegate tasks better and monitor compliance with office policies more thoroughly. Sumner said Tuesday that Wilhite understands the county and the "cast of characters she has to deal with."

Hildebrand declined to say if she wanted Wilhite to be county attorney. But she noted she has known Wilhite since the attorney was 3 or 4 years old. "I like Barbara. I think she does a good job."

Sumner's two-year contract ends Sept. 30, but he said he plans to stay through December to finish plans for the $7.9-million tennis complex and set a policy on school concurrency planning.

Sumner's contract pays him $164, 400 this year, plus travel costs and professional membership fees. He started in June 1999, returning to a post he had held from 1967 to 1972.

Sumner said he will quit law and spend time with his 12 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He turns 72 next month. "I was in the process of retiring when I took the job, " he half-joked Tuesday.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

In other Business

Utilities oversight

Despite Commissioner Jack Mariano's urging, the commission declined to begin taking over the regulation of private utilities from the state. Mariano said the shift would make it easier for residents to work with regulators on utility problems. But other commissioners balked over questions of cost and responsibilities, instead agreeing to seek a staff report and perhaps a workshop on the idea.