Overruling the findings of a five-person committee set up to recommend a replacement for outgoing city attorney Pat Floyd, Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday evening voted unanimously to appoint Eastpoint attorney Kristy Banks to fill that position.
The decision came following a lengthy discussion, and an appearance at the meeting by Banks, who grew up and lives now in Apalachicola, and received her law degree from Florida State University in 2001.
Banks will be paid $80 an hour above and beyond a base fee of $2,500 for 35 hours monthly. The city budget, which was earlier approved by unanimous vote, has earmarked $80,000 for legal fees in the upcoming budget year, with $55,000 assigned to overall city work, and $25,000 specifically for planning and zoning.
The budget during the current fiscal year exceeded the initial $80,000 that was allocated; the city commission has the ability to approve expenditures above and beyond that during the course of the year.
Banks had been ranked third by the selection committee, which included city commissioner Anita Grove, local residents John Alber and Bonnie Davis, who are both attorneys, and Apalachicola residents Peter Gallant and Bobby Miller.
The selection committee had recommended the commissioners approve a six-month fixed fee agreement with the highest-ranked firm, Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson, out of Tallahassee.
Also interviewed by the committee had been Oertel, Fernandez, Bryant and Atkinson, of Tallahassee, as well as Banks. A fourth firm, Knowing and Randolph, did not make the final cut, over what Grove said Tuesday had been because of “something they neglected to mention” during the selection process.
“(Nickerson) has in-depth experience in municipal law and the ability to meet our needs,” said Grove, in outlining the committee’s decision to her colleagues. “This would be probationary; we’ll see how that goes. We felt like they brought a lot to the table.”
Nickerson’s fees would be higher than Banks’, with an hourly fee of $140, about $6,000 for 40 hours of work a month.
Grove said the commission should consider that a firm with extensive experience in municipal government matters could address an issue in significantly less time than would a lawyer who needs to research an issue.
Floyd told commissioners that both his father, and Ben Watkins, each a previous city attorney, lacked experience in city government law when they took the job many years ago. He said Barbara Sanders, with school law, and Michael Shuler, with county law, had not had experience in those respective fields when they began what has been a long tenure with these public bodies.
He said a city attorney often relies on legal knowledge brought in by attorneys with its insurance companies.
“They have access to that after you have gotten the information you need to,” he said, adding that while experience in city government was not required “the more you have, the better, certainly.”
Mayor Van Johnson said he much preferred to go with a local attorney. “My vote will be to hire somebody who lives in Apalachicola,” he said. “If we’re not willing to hire local people, who will?”
Grove said the committee also examined how long the candidates said they would be willing to stay in the role as a city attorney, noting Banks had said she’d been in that role “for a couple years.”
Grove also said that being active in a political party – Banks is chairman of the county Republican Executives Committee and secretary of the state Republican party – “might cause some perceptions” that could pose problems in the role of city attorney.
“We were just considering that maybe it’s better the person not be in that position while they’re working on behalf of the city,” she said, noting that Banks said she would not be willing to step down from her political involvement.
Gallant told the commission the fact Nickerson has done work with developers indicates they are familiar with the legal strategies of such businesses, and that that figured into the committee’s decision-making.
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott took issue with the fact Banks’ role with the GOP had been considered, stressing that political affiliation should not be considered any more than race or religion would be.
He noted that a previous city commissioner, active in the Democratic Party, had been instrumental in helping bring the city out of debt in the 1980s. “We had no problem with her being affiliated with the Democrats,” he said.
“I’ll always choose someone from here,” Elliott said. “(The others) are not from here. Their heart is not from here.”
He noted that a local person pays taxes to the city and contributes to the local economy by shopping here.
Alber said he agreed that local representation would be beneficial. “The city can also benefit from having an experienced lawyer as quickly as possible,” he said.
He said bringing in Nickerson’s expertise early on, and having them work in part with Banks, could help “bring her up to speed quickly” and help facilitate a transition. “That way you get the experience,” Alber said.
Banks rose to address the commission to note that she was not clear how the message that she only planned to stay a couple, years had arisen. “I would hope to do it until I got to the point of retiring,” she said.
In response to a question from Commissioner Brenda Ash, Banks said her private practice is flexible in terms of how many hours she can devote to city work.
“”The real estate side of my business will always be a priority for me,” she said.
Banks said real estate issues, a key part of city attorney work, “are right in my wheelhouse. “I’m not a litigator, I’m a transactional attorney."
Alber suggested the city’s budget for attorney work could be split between Nickerson getting $60,000 and the rest going to Banks, but commissioners showed no interest in examining a shared arrangement.
“I would do as much on my own and reach out to them only if I needed to,” she said. “I would like to save the city costs. But without question, I would be delighted to have the benefit of their insight and counsel.”
Prior to the vote each of the two mayoral candidates rose to address the commissioners.
Kevin Begos suggested that since the original motion proposed Nickerson be placed on six-months probationary status, that the same probationary format should be extended in making Banks the initial hire.
Valentina Webb said that just as the entire city commission had interviewed Ron Nalley for the city manager position after the selection committee she had sat on made its recommendation, the commissioners should interview the two candidates directly.
The commissioners chose instead to approve a motion to hire Banks immediately, with Nalley to draw up the terms for a formal contract to be approved prior to Floyd’s retirement from the job he held for more than two decades.