Local News

County leans toward a full-time attorney

SEBRING - Ross Macbeth may have lost his job Tuesday.

The Highlands County commissioners were in a workshop during the portion of Tuesday's meeting when they discussed whether to contract for legal services or to employ a full-time attorney, so they couldn't vote.

However, three of the five commissioners were in favor of switching away Macbeth, who has contracted to be their part-time attorney for 24 years.

Highlands tops the population list for counties without a staff attorney, according to table provided by County Administrator June Fisher. Seven counties with smaller populations - Flagler, Putnam, Nassau, Monroe, Columbia, Walton and Hendry - have a full-time attorney. Of those, Hendry has only 39,000 people, Walton has 55,000, Columbia 67,000, Monroe 72,000, Nassau and Putnam 74,00, and Flagler 96,000.

Flagler pays the most for an attorney, an assistant and a paralegal at $170,000, Nassau pays the least at $120,000, a survey presented to commissioners showed.

Highlands has about 98,000 people and Macbeth billed an average of $246,000, the county said.

That information is probably five to seven years old, Macbeth countered. To his knowledge, Florida Association of Counties has not taken a survey since 2007 or 2009.

"I will reiterate my point," Brooks said. "It's not that I think we're going to save any money."

He believes that an in-house attorney will be more convenient to the staff and that efficiency will improve.

"It seems like every time we are working on something, something legal comes up, and why didn't we hear about it before?" Brook said. "It's nothing personal against Ross Macbeth. He might even want to apply, and he would be considered like anybody else."

"I concur with Commissioner Brooks," Ron Handley said, citing the statistics. "There just comes a time when we need to make that change."

"I think we have to look at something other than instant availability. We have to look at history, the training and the amount of time it takes to get up to date with state procedures," Commissioner Jack Richie said. "We're going to have that lag time.

Macbeth always returns calls quickly, Richie said, but when groups have to wait because an issue is reportedly stalled while Macbeth prepares an ordinance, "I think waiting is a good thing. And Mr. Macbeth has been exemplary in the defense and protection of this county commission and the county itself. He is a proven man."

Harris, who speaks last because he chairs the meeting, declared himself "a Ross Macbeth fan."

"I understand I probably have the deciding vote," Elwell said. "I like Ross; I like the work Ross has done; I like the thoroughness of his research. I've talked to staff, and they have no problem getting hold of Ross."

However, he continued, Highlands is on the bubble of counties who need a full-time attorney. "Maybe the time has come."

Perhaps the commission should keep Macbeth until the end of the year, maybe next year too, Elwell said. He believes that when questioned about why something is taking too long, staffers sometimes scapegoat Macbeth by saying the documents are stuck on his desk.

"You receive lists of what's going into and coming out of my office," Macbeth said. Sometimes he really hasn't gotten to an issue. "There's plenty of work to do."

"What can we do to make Ross become more efficient?" Harris asked. Should commissioners prioritize which issue or ordinance Macbeth should work on next?

That's for the county administrator, Richie disagreed.

Could Macbeth help train his replacement, he was asked.

No, he replied. "I can't help a junior attorney who is down here unsupervised." His office is on U.S. 27.

"So there is not going to be a transition," Handley said.

Maybe they could hire a new staffer and keep Macbeth on retainer.

"You aren't going to hire someone fresh out of law school," Macbeth pointed out. "You are going to hire somebody who has worked in government... I think everyone recognizes I'm going to be the last contract attorney you'll hire. They advertised for a full-time attorney in 1990, and nobody applied. This time, I assure you, someone will apply."

Highlands is a larger county than it was 24 years ago, and lots of lawyers need jobs, he said.

The commissioners decided to put the item on the agenda in May.