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Commission questions town attorney's legal advice

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  • | 4:00 a.m. March 18, 2014
  • Longboat Key
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Some Longboat Key commissioners are beginning to question the legal advice they are receiving from Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale.

Longboat Key Mayor Jim Brown added an agenda item to the Longboat Key Town Commission’s March 17 regular workshop to discuss the town attorney and her progress in the role.

Brown made the decision after Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Association Attorney Don Hemke informed the commission at a March 4 public nuisance hearing that his client had not received due process after receiving some witness reports less than a week before the hearing. One report was released the day before the hearing.

Former town attorney Dave Persson, who sat with the commission at the hearing due to his previous legal knowledge of the Colony and because he works for the same law firm as Mooney-Portale, agreed with Hemke’s assessment that the association had not received due process. The commission continued the hearing until May.

Brown expressed frustration after the hearing, telling the Longboat Observer “there’s going to have to be questions asked and questions answered from our legal counsel.”

But at the commission’s regular workshop Monday, Brown said he had discussed his issues internally with Mooney-Portale, Persson and Town Manager Dave Bullock.

“A document (see sidebar) has been put together, establishing the expectations we have for our town attorney,” Brown said. “As a result, I think we should give our town attorney an opportunity to get up to speed.”

Brown noted that Mooney-Portale has only been the town’s attorney for eight months and was on maternity leave from October until early January.

“I don’t think she’s had enough time to be judged,” Brown said. “I would like to wait and have this discussion again in the fall.”
Commissioner Jack Duncan agreed, noting that commissioners have to communicate with Mooney-Portale as much as possible to relay their concerns.

“We had an attorney very open to conversing (Persson) and then you came on board and went on leave when you had a baby,” Duncan said.

Commissioners Lynn Larson and Phill Younger, though, took the opportunity to reveal issues with Mooney-Portale during the workshop.

“I have a lot of concerns,” Larson said. “We had a town attorney that was here 25 years and a lot of things that should have been addressed weren’t.”

Larson said the town had a chance to find a new town attorney but never really switched because it kept the same law firm and still seeks Persson’s legal advice in matters such as the Colony.

“There comes a time, and I think the time is there, to need to really look to change,” Larson said. “We almost made a change but we didn’t, and we are compounding the mistake by dragging this out.”

Younger made no comments regarding Mooney-Portale’s performance during the discussion item, but became frustrated during Mooney-Portale’s town attorney comments at the end of the workshop.

Mooney-Portale said the town will seek a legal opinion in a memo from Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office to get direction about the Planning and Zoning Board’s ability to take on duties of the Zoning Board of Adjustment if ZBA members cannot meet.

Younger, a member of the Georgia bar for more than 30 years, and planning board member George Symanski Jr., a former attorney with more than 30 years of experience in such areas, do not believe planning board members can serve under both capacities. But Mooney-Portale has suggested planning board members could handle such duties on an as-needed basis.

“Once again, it’s a situation where we are recommending something there’s a great deal of uncertainty about,” Younger said.

Younger said he disagrees with getting an opinion from Bondi’s office because the opinion will not be binding, explaining to the Longboat Observer he would rather see Mooney-Portale make her own legal decision.

“It doesn’t seem like sound legal advice,” Younger said.

Commissioner Pat Zunz also sent Mooney-Portale a two-page memo dated March 6, with several questions about a March 4 memo Mooney-Portale prepared explaining the Colony’s legal issues and the status of its bankruptcy case.

Other commissioners, though, expressed an interest in giving Mooney-Portale more time.

“It’s a heck of a disservice if you go off the deep end and make a change without real grounds for it,” said Vice Mayor David Brenner.

Mooney-Portale told the commission Monday she “appreciates the opportunity to continue on.”

The commission is responsible for the hiring and firing of only two Longboat Key officials: the town manager and the town attorney.



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