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Town Attorney seeks pay hike

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Longboat Key Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale summed her position up last Thursday: “It’s an honor to work as Town Attorney for Longboat Key, but I do need the commission to treat me fairly.”

Mooney-Portale is specifically referring to her compensation, which is defined in a contract that expires on June 1, 2019 and is based on a flat monthly retainer fee of $20,312.50 with additional hourly pay for work outside of the normal agreed upon scope.

When Mooney-Portale started in June 2013, she agreed to the flat rate and estimated it would take 18-20 hours per week on average to complete the necessary work required by her obligations under the contract to the town commission and the town staff.

But according to Mooney-Portale, that estimate was urealistic given the demands on her position. The town finance department after reviewing the amount Mooney-Portale has made and the number of hours she has worked, has found that on average she is earning less than $170 per hour for her services.

In a budget report it shows that Mooney-Portale expended 1,439.5 hours in flat rate legal services in fiscal year 2016. Her total monthly retainer over that same period amounted to $243,750, netting a calculated hourly rate of $169.38.

To rectify this pay problem, Mooney-Portale approached the commission earlier in June with a memorandum requesting her contract be amended so that she and the attorneys in her firm, which is Persson and Cohen, be paid at a strictly hourly rate of $235 per hour.

Mooney-Portale says that many issues including the Charter Density Referendums, dual county issues, legislative matters, undergrounding, reconstituting the town’s beach districts, code enforcement matters, as well as purchasing issues were either not anticipated nor expected to generate the amount of workload when she agreed upon the contract three years ago.

Mooney-Portale said she anticipated a learning curve that would take more time, and would generate extra hours, but she said the workload in years two and three of her contract indicate a higher number than was calculated in her flat fee proposal.

Another issue, says Mooney-Portale is with the imminent retirement of Town Manager Dave Bullock in January 2018, the reliance on her knowledge and services may increase as well.

Mooney-Portale hopes that if the commission agrees with her request, an amendment will be brought forward to the town commission’s July 17 regular meeting.

Under the current contract, Mooney-Portale is responsible under the flat retainer fee to:

• Provide general counsel legal services

• Attend meetings with town manager and staff

• Cover travel costs to and from town hall and within the Sarasota/Bradenton area

• Pay for costs of copying, postage and telephone

• Perform all duties as identified through the Longboat code of ordinance

• Hold telephone conferences and discussions with commissioners as required

• Prepare for, attend and participate in commission meetings, workshops and attorney client sessions; code enforcement board meetings, planning and zoning board meetings, zoning board of adjustment meetings and charter review board meetings

• Prepare ordinances, resolutions and contracts

• Deal with utility billing issues such as liens and lien satisfactions

• Monitor and report on outside legal counsel

In her current contract, Mooney-Portale is paid $235 per hour but only for issues and matters that rise in the level of complexity that they are not included in the monthly retainer fee. These extras are real estate contracts, litigation, pension and labor law as well as bond counsel services.

When Mooney-Portale applied for the job in 2013, she requested the monthly flat rate and in her proposal said it was based on a review of the hours required for legal services to the town over the past 22 years.

If the town had paid Mooney-Portale the $235 per hour, it would have totaled $338,176.75 for the same amount of work. In cost to taxpayers it would increase the total town budget by more than $94,000, an almost 40 percent increase.

The situation for Mooney-Portale has gradually improved in some regards. In fiscal year 2014, she worked 1,879 hours, which amounts to an average hourly rate of $129.70. In fiscal year 2015, she worked 1,545 hours for the same annual base pay of $243,750 and that brought her an average of $157 per hour. As stated, in 2016 her time expended fell to 1,439 hours.

An analysis of her time shows that in 2016, the majority of it was spent dealing with undergrounding issues, dealing with the town commission, and in planning, zoning and building matters.

The commission discussed the matter briefly at its budget workshop in June and decided that Commissioner Jack Daly would best serve the town in negotiating the issue with Mooney-Portale. Daly supervised attorneys and legal departments in his former career as an executive.

Daly told Longboat Key News that he shares Mooney-Portale’s concern that the large undergrounding project as well as the fact that the Town Manager is retiring could add significantly to her workload. Daly said he oversaw the legal department in his natural gas firm that employed up to 30 attorneys and that he would rate Mooney-Portale as a solid eight or 9 on a scale of 10 when it comes to her performance.

The commission instructed Bullock to put an additional $75,000 in next year’s budget in anticipation of agreeing to Mooney-Portale’s hourly rate proposal. Prior to the July meeting where it is expected, a contract amendment will be voted on, Bullock will assess whether $235 per hour is a fair and equitable rate to pay the attorney.

“The threshold question is ‘Are we satisfied with the professional level of service being provided?’” said Daly.

Daly said he was, and that the fact that the commission voted to budget for the increase appears to indicate agreement.

“One of the most important aspects is the institutional knowledge Mooney-Portale has acquired and it is more important now than ever,” said Daly.

 

 

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