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Attorney for Madeira Beach gets dismissed

Two of the five commissioners feel strongly about finding a new counselor. That proves

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


MADEIRA BEACH -- Just this once, minority rules in Madeira Beach.

The City Commission decided not to renew its contract with City Attorney Andrew Salzman on Wednesday, citing a series of problems with Salzman's legal advice and occasional lack of attention to municipal affairs.

Only two of the five city commissioners, Doreen Moore and Jan Sturgis, were vehement about finding a new city attorney. But Mayor Tom DeCesare, fearing that the two commissioners' mistrust of Salzman would lead them to second-guess his legal advice, urged the entire commission to support seeking a new lawyer.

"You can't expect him to be our counselor when two of us have no faith in him," DeCesare said.

The other two commissioners, Roger Koske and Charles Parker, went along with the idea of shopping for new legal representation, though they cautioned that the pool of good government attorneys is small. Koske and Parker fear that Madeira Beach would be unable to hire a better lawyer than Salzman.

"We know what we have when we have Andy," Parker said.

Salzman, 40, is a partner with the recently formed Clearwater-based firm of Zimmet, Unice, Salzman & Feldman. He also represents the city of Indian Rocks Beach.

Salzman said he was prepared to part ways with the city if two-fifths of the commission lacked confidence in his ability to do the job.

"To be honest, it's no good to me when I'm giving an opinion and they're second-guessing it," Salzman said. "Three to two is no good for anybody."

Sturgis and Moore enumerated their concerns about Salzman's legal advice, including:

His role in how the city handled a state flood grant awarded in 1998 to city resident Tom Saxon, who was a city commissioner at the time.

Ultimately, the commission rescinded the grant, and Saxon sued for the money.

In June, a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge ruled that the city was right to withhold nearly $65,000 in federal flood grant money from the former commissioner, but the judge might change his decision and send the case to trial.

The commission hired a separate attorney, Ed Foreman, to represent the city against Saxon.

In a contract that Salzman presented to the commission last week, he offered to credit Madeira Beach $2,000 for his firm's performance in the Saxon case. The city will not receive that money because commissioners declined the new contract with Salzman.

"I don't feel the city would have been in the situation it was in, incurring the fees it incurred, had it been under different counsel," Moore said.

Parker argued that Salzman's relationship with Madeira Beach has improved, but Sturgis said the problems with the Saxon dispute are still valid because the case is ongoing.

"As much as you might want to ignore the Saxon issue, I don't think you can because it is ongoing," Sturgis said. "I think the commission deserves better legal advice than that."

Salzman's delegating an associate to represent the city when he was unavailable. This practice was a particular problem during the early days of the Saxon case.

"We were being used as a training ground for a neophyte attorney who didn't have the experience," Parker said.

Salzman's absence became an issue again recently when he sent another attorney to an important Board of Adjustment meeting.

The frailty of the lease that Salzman negotiated with city marina operator Fred Pugliese.

The lease included no inventory of items at the marina when Pugliese took over its operation, an oversight that could become an issue if the city wants to discontinue its agreement with Pugliese.

City Manager Mike Bonfield pointed out that Salzman has been responsive and stays close to the $2,000 a month retainer the city pays him. Salzman traditionally bills the city about $15,000 a year for services not covered by the retainer, making the city's annual legal bill for Salzman's firm about $40,000.

Salzman agreed Wednesday to continue as city attorney until the commission can find a replacement. That could take two or three months.

"There have been things that happened in the past -- some that were in my control, some that were not in my control," he said.

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