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1 year later, new managers make strides

GARTH COLLER: This attorney is a talker who prefers to act now, rather than regret later. Complaints about his style are largely eclipsed by his effectiveness.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley regularly finds himself wanting to rein in talkative County Attorney Garth Coller.

"Mr. Col-ler," Kingsley sternly says, eyebrows raised, as Coller launches into his views about the topic at hand without being asked.

Coller usually responds with a grin and a quick, "Sorry, Mr. Chairman," before continuing to speak as if he just blew by a verbal speed bump. From his perspective, getting certain information on the record is critical for the commission to avoid legal pitfalls -- whether the commissioners like it or not.

"My job," he says in his crisp South African accent, "is to reduce litigation. The one thing I try to convince the board, and I think this is why I got the job, is it's cheaper in the long run to do it right up front."

Changing the way government does business to suit these legal needs has proven arduous during Coller's first year as the county's first full-time lead lawyer.

Gone, for instance, are the days of speedy land-use hearings. One recent session lasted 11 hours as Coller insisted upon marking all evidence, allowing cross-examinations and otherwise providing due process to the petitioner.

Staff hours are strained, too, as Coller demands additional work from planners, inspectors and others who recommend board action. Commissioners cannot make appropriate decisions, he says, if their advisers do not give them adequately prepared reports.

And Coller gets to talk, a lot, sometimes stepping on toes as he rumbles toward the goal of creating a process that can withstand attack in court.

Most of his government colleagues ignore the in-your-face approach because, they say, they appreciate that Coller and his staff always make themselves available to answer questions and to help with legal matters.

Some department directors have cried foul, though, saying his style sometimes crushes the substance. A couple of directors with whom Coller has feuded over procedure said that if he could learn to issue directives a little more nicely, they'd have few complaints, as his aim is commendable.

"I understood that was going to be a problem," Coller, 46, acknowledged. "But given the two choices of sitting there when you think a mistake is being made and saying nothing, or speaking up and trying to solve the problem before it is made, I choose to speak up. That will continue to be the case."

Part-timer Snow still working on the sidelines

Coller is quite a contrast from Bruce Snow, the soft-spoken Brooksville lawyer who declined to take the full-time post last year after holding the job part time since the 1970s.

"He has probably said more in his one year than Bruce said in his 26 years," Kingsley said of Coller.

Former Commissioner Pat Novy led the charge to have a full-time county attorney. She argued that Snow made too much money by charging the county an hourly rate for some of his work in addition to his $6,000 monthly retainer, while an in-house lawyer would not incur such costs.

Snow earned $107,712 in his final year as county attorney, according to county records; Coller's starting salary was $85,000. After merit and cost-of-living raises, Coller now earns $91,927 annually. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the Legal Department had a $493,328 budget. This year, the budget is $594,615.

A staff lawyer also would be more accessible than an outside counsel, Novy contended. Several county audits found Snow to be an excellent lawyer who was often unresponsive to inquiries from department heads.

Commissioners Kingsley and Nancy Robinson joined Novy to create the full-time job. At Robinson's recommendation, the commission kept Snow on call to complete his old cases and help on some new ones. It makes sense, Coller said, as Snow wrote many of the county's key contracts and knows most of the major players.

Keeping Snow around also stops people suing the county from hiring him, Coller added with a smile.

Snow's retainer is $3,500 a month for two years. Since last March, when Coller took over, Snow has closed nine cases and continues work on 16 others, including issues relating to Brooksville Regional Hospital. He has earned $94,985.

The county also has set aside $350,000 to cover Snow's unsettled, unsubmitted bills.

The situation is working as planned, Robinson said.

"What I see is very positive," she said. "While the board is conducting its business, if a legal question comes up . . . (Coller) brings it to the board's attention. I appreciate it when someone points something out to me and brings out the legal elements before we make a decision."

Coller and his staff pore over each document that comes to the board, issue opinions for all departments, review ordinances for legality, help rewrite them as necessary, and otherwise make sure the commission does its job properly, she said. Snow handles other county needs, she said.

"We're keeping three full-time attorneys overworked, and we still need a part-time special counsel," Robinson said. "Obviously, the workload has grown, and the board has asked for more legal things to be done. That's why we still need what we have."

Change has been good, one assistant says

The changes have improved the county attorney's office, said Kent Weissinger, one of Coller's two assistant lawyers. Having the boss on-site keeps the department better organized and focused, Weissinger said, and Coller respects his co-counsels professionally.

"However, and I wouldn't call this bad because it's good in our representation of the county, we are reviewing a lot more than we used to," Weissinger said. "Garth has instituted a policy where if you have a legal document that is going to the County Commission, it has to come through the Legal Department for review.

" . . . In terms of the office, it has had quite an impact," he said. "It sure has increased our workload."

In 1999, the Legal Department had 260 requests to issue opinions or review documents. Last year, the number grew to 347. In the first two months of 2001, the department had 143 requests.

Coller plans to ask commissioners for at least one more lawyer next year to lighten the load.

Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason Jr., who frequently comes before the commission on development issues, thinks the concept of a full-time county attorney is a bad one. If a lawyer has other clients to help pay the bills, Mason said, he has more independence to give commissioners advice they might not want to hear.

That doesn't seem to be a problem for Coller, though, Mason said.

In fact, he praised Coller for effectively promoting the commission's interests. He also welcomed many of the changes Coller has made in land-use hearings.

"If you expect it will go to court, you have to conduct a hearing that assures evidence is put into the record," Mason said. "It's far better for them to take a formalized approach."

Snow deflected comparisons between him and Coller.

"There's no one way of practicing art," Snow said, sitting in his Brooksville office surrounded by pictures of his professional baseball player son, Bert. "If that were the case, we would have stopped at Rembrandt and we would not have enjoyed Van Gogh. Perhaps I was more of a Grandma Moses, and obviously Mr. Coller is more of a Picasso. He and I paint art differently."

Times and laws have changed, Snow said, and the county has altered its practices to reflect the differences. Coller simply is leading the effort now, and Snow is happy to serve in a supporting role.

"It's just part of the evolutionary metamorphosis that comes with a community," Snow said.

Kingsley agreed that the arrangement with Snow and Coller is working well, and said that any problems with Coller's style are overshadowed by his overall effectiveness.

Coller, who served as Monroe County's land-use attorney for 11 years before joining Hernando County, said that as long as he can protect the county from the dangers of uncontrolled growth he saw in the Keys and keep the county on legally defensible ground, he will be doing his job well.

Already he's seen glimmers of success, such as a recent appellate win over the county's sign ordinance. But he said more time will need to pass before the tale is all told. Like County Administrator Paul McIntosh, who started work in Hernando on the same day, Coller wants to put in the years to see it happen.

He has bought a house in Spring Hill, though it remains part-filled with unpacked boxes. After years of travel and a beachfront lifestyle, he's ready to settle down.

"I will be here the rest of my life unless there's some particular reason not to be," Coller said. "If we do what I have set out to do, which is protect the quality-of-life issues, I really think this could be the most sought-out community in Florida except for the beachfront communities."

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