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Banks steps down as city attorney

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

A year and a half after she was chosen as Apalachicola’s city attorney, Kristy Branch Banks has stepped down, citing a growing case load in her Eastpoint private practice.

In announcing at the Feb. 2 meeting of the Apalachicola city commission her decision to resign, Banks, who a few months earlier had been approved by the commission for renewal of her contract, said she would stay long enough to assist in the transition.

“I would like to continue working with the commission until such time new legal counsel can be retained,” she said. “I love my hometown and I absolutely want to see things move forward in a smooth and productive manner.”

Kristy Banks addresses the city commission in Sept. 2019

Later in the meeting, the commissioners heard two presentations - from Evan Rosenthal, from Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson, out of Tallahassee., the firm that was runner-up to Banks when she was selected in Sept. 2019, and from Carrabelle City Attorney Dan Hartman.

Both Rosenthal and Hartman have been doing various legal assignments for the city, as an adjunct to Banks’ legal work.

As it turned out, remarks by Mayor Kevin Begos at the outset of the meeting, and a narrow vote later in the meeting to seek requests for proposals from attorneys seeking the city position, turned what could have been a humdrum discussion into anything but.

In an unusual departure from customary commission comments that avoid sharp personal criticism, Begos opened the meeting by lodging a critique of his fellow commissioners, Anita Grove and Despina George.

The mayor accused George of being a contributing factor in Banks’ decision to step down, and of the two commissioners being part of “constant negative feedback” that was a factor in City Manager Travis Wade’s recent decision to seek the top job at the Apalachicola Housing Authority. Wade was a finalist, with former banker Stephnia Turrell eventually securing the job to replace Steve Lanier.

“He has applied for other jobs out of frustration how he has been treated,” said Begos. “Some commissioners make a constant practice of interrupting other speakers.

“Some commissioners also claim they are kept in the dark, and that city staff did better in the past,” he said, adding that he agreed commissioners could benefit from regular written updates, as well as a better definition of the city manager position.

Begos said the city has done much better at sharing city agendas than the previous administration, when he said weeks and months passed without regular notification to the public. “We have made progress on that front,” he said.

The mayor said Grove “has been especially vocal in her complaints,” and accused her of allowing, in her capacity as the city’s liaison to the board of the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, the HCA board to not file minutes with the city in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

“Why didn’t Commissioner Grove speak up about that?” he said. “I also feel Commissioner George feels there’s a campaign against her.”

Begos then reiterated his past support for George’s election in 2019, one in which she was the top vote-getter with more than 57 percent of the vote in her race.

“I campaigned for her, and put her sign in my yard,” he said. “I told people to vote for her.”

He went on to say that in her 16 months in office, George had not met with Banks in her Eastpoint office, or visited City Hall to meet with finance director Leo Bebeau.

“She refused to meet with (former city manager) Ron Nalley,” he said. “Now she doesn’t meet with either man. She lives two blocks from City Hall.

“I want Commissioner George to be more involved,” Begos said. “I have asked her but I cannot make her do it.”

In the past George has said publicly she believes her views and comments on city business are best shared in the sunshine at public meetings, and that it is her duty as a commissioner to outline her stance before the public on business that comes before the board.

At last week’s meeting, she declined to take on Begos’ criticisms directly.

“I find your comments so inflammatory and inappropriate, and they do not serve any productive purpose,” she said. “I don’t take lightly having my performance and character slandered by you in a public meeting. That’s all I have to say.”

Begos then doubled down on his critique. “I am surprised you have no reply,” he said. “I’m baffled why you would not go into City Hall and not meet (with staff) on a regular basis.”

George took the opportunity, in thanking Banks for her service, to ask the attorney if she had contributed to her decision to resign.

“Since Mr. Begos has held me responsible for your resignation, there seems to be other issues where we were told you were very busy and we were assigning work out to other attorneys,” said George.

George, the lone nay vote in approving Banks’ contract a few weeks ago, said at the time she was doing so because she did not think the proposed contract spelled out in sufficient detail what legal work Banks would be responsible for, and what she would delegate to other attorneys more expert in the respective areas of the law.

“I’d like to know it I’m responsible for your resignation,” George asked of Banks.

“I’ve made no accusations in that regard,” she replied, noting her decision had been based on a great number of reasons.

She noted that with the ascension of Gordon Shuler to the county judgeship, and the retirement of Barbara Sanders, “there are literally two attorneys in the county working fulltime. When Gordon Shuler (became judge) and Barbara Sanders retired, my practice has grown tremendously. I’m working 10 hours or so a day and it is difficult for me to manage what work flow I have.

“I have not privately or publicly blamed any individual for that decision,” Banks said.

Begos then offered that his comments had been that Banks’ decision was “driven at least partly” by George.

“In numerous meetings I have had with her she has expressed frustration that Despina George has not once gone to her office in 16 months to meet with her and discuss litigation,” Begos said.

Grove was vocal in her defense following Begos’ comments.

“I’m glad you got that off your chest,” she said. “I feel like when I ask something, when it does get addressed I want it to be on public record.”

She said she remains in regular communication with both Wade and Bebeau. “It’s not mistreating people, it’s trying to get to a solution,” Grove said. “I bring it up so we get it on the record.

“I’m sorry if you think it’s disruptive. I think this is the venue for it,” she said. “I’m sorry you take it that way.”

Begos continued to press Grove as to why she had not been instrumental in seeing that HCA meetings’ minutes were submitted to the city. The mayor said he recently met with HCA Director Merrill Livingston to see that the practice resumes.

“I guess I made a mistake,” said Grove, noting that the submission of minutes had not been required by the city manager.

Following the presentations by Rosenthal and Hartman, Begos favored making a decision that evening on Banks’ successor. He said the city charter granted commissioners that authority, but did not spell out the procedures that would have to be followed, other than the attorney had to be licensed in the state, and with at least five years’ experience.

“It is completely within our power,” he said. “That’s really all it says.”

The mayor said Rosenthal has proposed a fee of $150 an hour, and Hartman $100, but more discussion would have to take place. “Both have said if they were chosen they would like a more detailed discussion with the city commission on what the rates were,” Begos said.

George urged her colleague to issue a formal request for proposals. “Here we have the most important services we’re going to contract for and the largest expense,” she said. “Taking a shortcut to save a couple weeks I do not think is a prudent thing to do. It sends a bad message to the community.

“Over a year has gone by, and there may be other qualified attorneys,” George said. “I think we need to make it available so any firm can submit a proposal.”

She also asked that Banks submit a written resignation letter that specified how she would see the transition to the next city attorney.

Begos said that since the city had been working with both men, “any other firm will immediately be at a disadvantage. We will not have had the experience of working with them for months on end.

“I can’t envision saying in a month or so, ‘Let’s take a chance on a firm we haven’t worked with,’” he said. “I would just say I found both attorneys being very responsive to our needs.”

The mayor asked Wade for his opinion, and the city manager offered that “I’ve had more dealings with Dan and he’s been very responsive. I could drive over to Dan’s office and walk in. I’ve had more dealings with Dan and I’m pleased.”

A vote to issue a request for proposals passed 3-2, with Commissioner Brenda Ash and Begos opposed.