Manatee County's Port Authority to set limits on legal fees

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 22, 2013 

PORT MANATEE -- The Manatee County Port Authority Thursday decided to stick with its private law firm, Lewis, Longman & Walker, P.A., but with the understanding that it would agree to an annual billing cap of $230,455 for general legal services.

County commissioners, who make up the port authority board, said they were concerned about the cost of legal services following an 2011 environmental debacle that resulted in a flood of almost 170 million gallons of contaminated water into areas around the port.

The incident also led to the bankruptcy of one of the port's business partners, HRK Holdings, LLC.

The authority had asked County Attorney Mitchell "Mickey" Palmer to come up with an estimate of how much it might cost for his office to do the job, in house, instead of using a private law firm.

The number came to $230,455, or $108.10 per hour for a 40-hour week, he told the authority Thursday morning.

Authority members said that, in addition to saving money on fees for regular legal services, they hoped for a more explicit understanding of when outside legal experts should be called in to head off trouble. For instance, the port has hired a law firm that specializes in bankruptcy proceedings to handle fallout from the HRK case.

In 2011, Port Manatee and

HRK Holdings LLC were in violation of their contract when the first drop of water entered the dredging reservoirs at Piney Point, The Herald has previously reported.

The quasi-government agency and HRK disre-garded a mandate to obtain $2 million in liability insurance, a joint policy that was to be funded equally between both parties, The Herald reported.

The safeguard was written into the 2007 contractfor cleanup relief in theevent of an environmental disaster -- like the subsequent storage liner rip that sent water from HRK's facility gushing into nearby residential neighborhoods, and ultimately, into Bishop Harbor.

But both parties went ahead with pumping debris from the port's Berth 12 dredging project into HRK's gypsum stacks at Piney Point without that required policy in hand.

The signed contract was never amended to show the absence of insurance, documents show. It may have worsened the impact of the spill, and a $15.8 million cleanup cost that could fall into the lap of taxpayers.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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