Local News

Commissioners vote to hire in-house attorney

— Highlands County will replace Ross Macbeth, but not until Oct. 1, 2015.
Two months ago, three of the five commissioners decided without a vote to eventually hire an in-house county attorney, and promised themselves to revisit the issue in May.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Don Elwell switched his vote, blaming the commissioners more than Macbeth for inefficiencies. It looked as if Macbeth would stay on.
“Before I go and dismiss an employee with 24 years of experience, let’s fix the process,” Elwell said. Two months ago, he was on the fence; Greg Harris and Jack Richie were Macbeth’s staunchest defenders.
However, when Ron Handley moved Tuesday to retain Macbeth through the end of the next fiscal year, Richie voted with Handley and Jim Brooks.
“The motion carried,” Chairman Harris announced. “There you have it.”
At the March meeting, Brooks and Handley complained about the lack of efficiency in county government. Some items were taking months, and often staffers complained that a proposed ordinance or contract was stuck in the county attorney’s office.
“I don’t see it saving us money,” Brooks said. “I don’t see it costing us more.” Macbeth’s billings have averaged $246,000 annually.
“In talking with counties that have made the transition, maybe things can move quicker if we had an attorney right down the hall,” Brooks said.
Macbeth always returns his calls, Elwell pointed out, and Macbeth said his office, on U.S. 27 near the south Publix, is just five minutes away.
“We are the largest county in the state without outside counsel,” Handley said. “We need to move in that direction now. And I think that will be more efficient.” A citizen a few days ago needed a yes or no answer from Macbeth, but that took two weeks, Handley said.
Replacing Macbeth in less than six months would be impossible, Harris said. “Ross is very, very, very good. He keeps a lot of balls in the air.”
The county has gotten busier over the past several years, Macbeth said. The U.S. Census shows the county had 68,000 people in 1990 and 87,000 in 2000. The current population is about 98,000.
“He has 25 things to work on, and he doesn’t read minds real well,” Elwell said. He suggested county commissioners communicate more effectively with their only two direct employees, Macbeth and County Administrator June Fisher.
Handley offered a compromise, hiring a junior staff attorney who will work in the County Government Center.
That wouldn’t work, Macbeth said. He can’t properly supervise someone who doesn’t work in his office. He has hired four attorneys over the years, most recently his daughter Elizabeth Lenihan, who left last year to become an assistant county attorney in Martin County.
Macbeth suggested that when the county does replace him, they won’t want a recent law school graduate, they’ll need someone with seven to 10 years of county law experience.
Since March, Macbeth said, he’s been in a quandary. He needs another attorney and a legal secretary in his office, but hiring someone for a few months isn’t how it’s done in the legal profession.
“We’re contributing to the problem here,” Richie said. “We have to make a decision. And it’s not going to be a happy decision. I strongly suggest we look at getting an RFP (request for proposals) out there and see what we can get.”
How about if the county hired a young attorney to work in Macbeth’s office, Elwell suggested.
That would work, Macbeth agreed. However, Brooks objected. “I don’t want to hire an employee and put him in your office.”
After more than an hour of discussion, Handley moved to hire an in-house attorney.
  • Commissioners voted to save $257,000 by reducing the thickness on the multi-use path from 1.5 inches to 1 inch, and the proposed Sebring Parkway Phase III roadpath from 3 inches to 2.5 inches. County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete quoted a Tindale Oliver Associates report that said the average daily traffic volume would not require thicker asphalt.
“We’re $200,000 short,” Handley complained. “This is going to be like every other job; we’re going to run over.”
Construction won’t start until early next year, Gavarrete said. “The one-penny sales tax might be reauthorized.”
If county commissioners agree, the one-penny sales tax could be on the November ballot for voters to approve.
If not, Gavarrete said, commissioners may need to borrow money.
  • Roney Guiterrez, easement program manager, said National Resource Conservation Service would build a $3 million water control structure on Fisheating Creek if Highlands County commissioner would take over its operation.
  • Office of Management and Budget Senior Manager Tim Mechling asked for permission to reduce a 2.5- month reserve budget to two months. Commissioners agreed.
  • Human Resources Manager Melissa Bruns ask for permission to modify the job description for the insurance coordinator, who retired, to create a human resource coordinator. The motion failed on a 2-3 vote.
  • Commissioners should be prepared to decide a complex recycling issue at the May 20 meeting, Harris said.
  • Commissioners could not grant a variance to allow Rick Haberman at China Doll Farms to raise a drove of pot bellied pigs. A county ordinance says he can raise any number of cows, horses or other animals, but only three chickens, pigs, goats or sheep. Haberman and his wife own 10 acres near Avon Park.
  • Former Paramedic Troy Granata again wanted to talk about an investigation into why Highlands County fired him, but Harris said he was done with the issue.
Granata was offered a chance to return to work but did not, and in recent months has said he would give information to Harris but did not.
“I am done with Troy Granata,” Harris said.