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Attorney resigns in midst of commission's distrust

The action comes after a motion to hire new counsel.

By M.E. BAKER, Times Correspondent
Published December 16, 2007


ST. PETE BEACH - In response to complaints by city commissioners who no longer trusted his legal advice, city attorney Timothy Driscoll resigned Tuesday.

The commissioners did take one piece of Driscoll's advice, however: They agreed to look for outside counsel to analyze petitions filed by a pro-redevelopment group.

"I've tried to give this city the best advice I possibly could give without regard to who the recipient of that advice might be. I accept that the city would like to make a change, and I'll go ahead and resign as the city attorney," Driscoll announced at the end of the council meeting. He then left the meeting room.

The resignation came after Commissioner Ed Ruttencutter asked the council to "consider a date to suspend" Driscoll and hire a new legal adviser. Commissioner Linda Chaney, who had asked that a city attorney review process be included in the meeting agenda, joined Ruttencutter in the motion.

Chaney accused Driscoll of giving "duplicitous advice" about how to deal with several initiatives filed recently by a pro-growth group, Save Our Little Village Inc. (SOLV).

She said Driscoll advised that the city adopt the group's petitions, put them on the ballot, or challenge them in court.

She said the attorney offered the advice without reading the petitions.

Driscoll also advised the city to hire an outside legal firm to review SOLV's petitions to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Chaney said Driscoll's latest legal opinion contradicted advice he gave the commission on a similar issue two years ago. At that time, the board was contesting a petition drive by Citizens for Responsible Growth, which was trying to limit development.

Reading from a June 2005 memo from Driscoll and City Manager Mike Bonfield, Chaney said that Driscoll advised the commission that "it is critical that the city not allow such action to potentially expose the community to costly litigation in the future over potentially invalid charter provisions."

The city attorney said he had suggested hiring outside legal counsel because "there may be some legitimate legal issues" with SOLV's petitions.

Driscoll added that there was "potential" that SOLV could sue the city to get its petition initiatives on the ballot. The court could still modify whatever the voters decided, he said.

His prediction was realized Wednesday as SOLV sued the city.

A day later, Pinellas County Circuit Judge David A. Demers ordered city officials to set an election on the six proposed ordinances. Demers' order said the election must be held between Dec. 19 and Feb. 17. The city must respond to the judge's order by Tuesday. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Ruttencutter offered no specific reasons for moving to suspend the attorney Tuesday night. On Thursday he sent an e-mail that cast blame for the firing on the City Commission. The e-mail was sent to several St. Pete Beach residents; a copy also was sent to City Clerk Teri McMaster.

"The reason that I proposed the replacement of Mr. Driscoll as our City Attorney at this time was entirely based upon the actions and conduct of members of the City Commission," Ruttencutter said.

"I was tired of sitting there while other members of the commission did many very foolish things and added, probably indefensible, conditions into ordinances and other actions because they refused to believe or trust the current City Attorney.

"Many times I have heard them and members of the public, both at commission meetings and at meetings of the Planning Board, express disparaging remarks about the wisdom and competence of our City Attorney and that was not good for him or the City of St. Pete Beach."

Ruttencutter said he hoped that with the selection of a new city attorney, "We can finally have agreement on legal advice and the rest of the commission will have confidence in that advice, even if it is the same opinions and advice as was given by our current city attorney, which in most cases it probably will be."

Driscoll's resignation is effective Feb. 1.

In an emergency meeting Thursday night, commissioners agreed to immediately begin the search for a replacement attorney, as well as to solicit proposals for a "special magistrate" to review SOLV's petitions and advise the commission on their validity.

The board hopes to begin reviewing applications for both positions in early January.

[Last modified December 15, 2007, 21:48:50]

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