On Tuesday, county commissioners decided not to decide on who will be the county attorney.
In a startling development, following interviews with five candidates for the job, Commissioner William Massey, announced he would not vote to appoint a candidate.
“About three days ago I had my decision made about who I was going to vote for. I had 186 phone calls yesterday; 33 of them was threats to burn me out (or damage my truck and boats.) Today I am not making a decision on the threats I got yesterday,” he said. “I was told I was the middleman and stood in between the two. I am not.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said she had been threatened as well and didn’t want to vote to choose the new attorney either.
“I have sat on this board for 15 years and made a lot of decisions in this county, some of them good and some of them bad. Some of them I didn’t want to make but I had to,” Sanders said. “I have never been so disappointed as I am in this procedure.”
She said the decision over the county attorney’s job had pitted relatives against each other.
Sanders said she was threatened with ethics violations and investigation under the Sunshine Act if she did not support Michael Shuler for county attorney.
“That’s carrying it a little too far,” she said. “Every time before I come in here, I pray and ask God to guide me on the decisions that I make. You’re telling me that if God puts it on my heart to pick someone other than Michael Shuler for county attorney that I’m doing wrong?
“I have not said I was supporting this one against that one. I and the rest of the board said we wanted to look at what is what. Mr. Massey is a new commissioner. He has the right to do that,” Sanders said. “I have not done anything to bring shame to Franklin County, but it has brought shame to me that some one would do this. I’m like Mr. Massey. I choose not to vote.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said that, under the law, any commissioner present was required to cast a vote.
Commissioner Noah Lockley moved to retain Shuler in office, Parrish seconded the motion. Jackel, Massey and Sanders each voted no.
After the motion failed, Massey moved to table the decision until the next meeting. He suggested the county vote on who would be the attorney.
“I was told I was the split of the county. Put it on the ballot and let the people vote on it, just like we run,” he said.
“I’ve received calls but not to this level,” said Jackel. “I think a cooling-off period is in order. The public will have the benefit of seeing the interviews when they are televised.”
St. George Island’s Walter Armistead commented from the audience that, if elected officials were being threatened there should be an investigation.
“This is the first of a lot to come,” Sanders predicted.
Shuler said the threats were, “totally unacceptable behavior.”
Four attorneys, in addition to Shuler, interviewed for the contested post.
Leading off was Ethan Way who asked to appear first because of time constraints. He said he has offices in both Tallahassee and Jacksonville and would rent a space here if he is appointed county attorney. He said her currently visits the county three or four times monthly.
Way said his partner in the Jacksonville office, Tim Gillis, is “well versed in tax law,” and would act as a consulting attorney for the same fee, $95 hourly, that Way proposes to charge.
Way said his office in Tallahassee would be an asset because so much litigation on county matters actually takes place there. He said he had formerly served as an assistant state attorney in Franklin County.
“The best way to save money is to avoid litigation,” he said. “Every dollar spent on playground equipment is better than a dollar spent on a lawyer.”
Jackel asked if he had experience in federal court and what expertise he could bring to litigation related to the RESTORE Act.
“I have an active bankruptcy practice,” he said. “I’ve handled two cases in the Western District of Arkansas and have two pending in the Northern District in Florida.”
He said the RESTORE Act was new legislation. “I don’t believe it provides for a citizen suit,” he said. “(But a suit might be possible) under certain environmental protection acts already on the books.”
He said he believed a county attorney would play an important role in preparing the report to be filed with the US Department of the Treasury after money is granted. “My partner recommends all reports be fly specked to ultimate level,” he said.
Way was followed to the podium by Kristy Branch-Banks, who thanked commissioners for the opportunity to apply. “It’s the first time in my lifetime I am aware county has opened this position up for bidding,” she said.
Banks spoke of her love for the county and of governmental processes. She told the commission she has been a resident of the county for most of her life.
“I have a unique perspective and connection with some local industries,” she said, explaining her father was a shrimper and she has worked with the real estate industry in recent years.
Banks said she is not currently admitted to practice in federal court but was willing and anxious to become qualified.
“I have application in hand and must simply complete an online qualification course and pay a $196 fee and I will be admitted,” she said. “I am not at all uncomfortable or intimidated.”
She promised to provide support, advice and counsel in a well-prepared and diligent manner, with follow up before and after with commissioners.
She volunteered that she will resign her leadership role in the county Republican Party if chosen.
Banks said she would make the county her first priority in her legal practice and her bid would save the county $20,000 per 1,000 hours of time.
The interview with Daniel Cox, former Carrabelle city attorney was brief. He said he has spent most of his life in northwest Florida, became a lawyer at 38 and boasts great life experience.
“My practice has focused almost entirely on local governments and on people having problems with local government,” he said. Cox said he had tried two bankruptcy trials in federal court.
“I could have served the county as well as outside counsel and charged considerably less,” he said.
Fourth to speak was Shalene Grover, who told commissioners she has been county attorney in Liberty County for 12 years and thoroughly enjoys the job. “I want to focus my practice on representing county governments,” she said, noting that she had not tried a case in federal court over the last five years.
Shuler was interviewed last.
“It’s been my pleasure to serve for last 11 years,” he said. “And that was a high honor and distinguished privilege. I think I’ve done a good job for the people of Franklin County.”
He said all of his employees are Franklin County residents and that he already has offices here. “We provide own staffing at no cost to the county so there’s no overhead or upkeep,” Shuler said.
He told commissioners he was born and raised here and that he has family ties to county government dating back to World War II. “We spend our tax dollars here,” Shuler said.
He said he had successfully tried a case in federal court for the county involving redistricting, and had several cases pending on which he was not the lead.