Chiefland looks at other legal options

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

The Chiefland City Commission is hanging out the "Help Wanted" sign just two weeks after muzzling City Attorney Norm Fugate for actively participating in a suit brought by businessman Andy Andrews.

Mayor Teal Pomeroy, who placed the item on the Monday night meeting agenda, said, "I want to consider advertising for legal services and see what we get."

The commission first discussed getting bids for legal services, but later decided to seek proposals.

Commissioner Rollin Hudson said the commission could find themselves in the position of receiving the lowest bid from the "best lawyer we're going to find in the Yellow Pages in Jacksonville. We've got to take the lowest bid."

"I would think you are bidding for experience," said City Manager Grady Hartzog. "I don't think it's price."

Pomeroy said, "I would think you would go with the best."

Fugate advised the commissioners they could avoid the "lowest bid" dilemma by making a "request for proposals." "I'm giving you my best unbiased advice on my replacement," Fugate said. He said the proposal should state the person's qualifications and proposed fee schedule.

The post will be advertised in two Levy County newspapers, and newspapers in Dixie and Gilchrist counties.

Fugate, who has been the city attorney since 2001, said his contract expires on Sept. 10. The city pays a $750 per month retainer plus expenses. Additional services cost $185 for the regular rate and $250 per hour litigation rate.

Vice Mayor Teresa Barron who said she understood Pomeroy's position, asked Fugate if he will be seeking the job. "That would be my intent," Fugate said.

"I think Mr. Fugate is doing a good job," said Barron, who was one of the critics of Fugate's participation in the Andrews' suit during a meeting two weeks ago.

"You need to know this relationship is one of mutual trust and confidence with all the commissioners," Fugate said.

Commissioner Frank Buie was the only commissioner to respond. "You have my trust and confidence."

Two weeks ago the commission decided to order Fugate to withdraw from the suit filed by Andrews against Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, Levy County Supervisor of Elections Connie Asbell and Hartzog.

The suit, filed Jan. 10 by Andrews seeks to have the court declare him a resident of Chiefland and that he is properly registered to vote in Chiefland city elections using his business address on First Avenue and not at the home he owns in Gainesville.

"I am concerned about the amount of money spent," said Pomeroy said in the Aug. 11 meeting referring to the $1,369 bill from Fugate for attending and participating in a deposition of Andrews. "I was told it was a friendly lawsuit."

Fugate said this case would define residency for the purposes of registering to vote in the state.

"It's more than just one voter affected here," Fugate said. It's more than having a business and having a home in a different place. It's more than just one vote and one person choosing to vote. It's abut the eligibility for office being defined as being registered to vote in Chiefland."

Fugate told the commission, "You're going to have the floodgates opened with people claiming they're citizens of Chiefland and eligible to run for office."

"You are fighting it and this is not the city fighting this," Pomeroy said. "We're not fighting somebody's right to vote."

"We don't need to get up there and ask any questions," said Vice Mayor Teresa Barron. "The state needs to ask questions and you need to stay out of it."

In Monday's meeting Hartzog also noted that he had received paperwork from Judge David A. Glant's office notifying him Fugate was being allowed to withdraw from the case.

Fugate did assure the commission that if Hartzog is subpoenaed or called to testify he would be available to represent him.

"This issue is a state voter issue. I don't want to get involved in a constitutional issue," Pomeroy said.

Fugate said Hartzog could be called as a witness. "You will be there," Barron said.

"There is no liability for the city. There is no wrongdoing on the part of the city," Pomeroy said.

"If I get called as mayor I don't think there's any reason I would need a lawyer there to answer the question honestly. I don't want a lawyer there coaching them on what to say," the mayor said.

Commissioner Sonny Cason said, "If I'm called in front of the judge I swear on a Bible and tell the truth."

"But some lawyers are ruthless," Barron said.

"Somebody has to be responsible," Buie said.