BRADENTON -- Bradenton Housing Authority temporary counsel Saxon/Gilmore could become the agency's first general counsel in nearly a decade.
The Bradenton Housing Authority Board will vote on new counsel at its Thursday meeting, and the only candidate presented to the board is Tampa-based Saxon/Gilmore. The agency has been without general counsel since at least 2006, when Wenston DeSue was hired as executive director.
"When Wenston DeSue was the executive director, we never had an attorney that sat in any of the board meetings," interim Executive Director Darcy Branch said. "The board never had legal advice as far as how meetings were run, if it was legal, and if it can be done. This way, the board can always refer to the attorney with any questions before they have any vote."
What legal representation will cost remains to be seen. The bids are not sealed and could be requested by anyone, Branch said, but the bid applications and background on each law firm, including rates, are not being distributed to the board members until Thursday because they have not asked for them. Before the board votes on an attorney. Branch said the bid packets could be made available to them if the board members desire. Branch said she will ask the board's desire about how they want the process handled in the future.
A contract has to be negotiated, but it's unclear how much the authority has budgeted for legal services.
Saxon/Gilmore received the highest bid score, 281, out of six law firms that applied. The next-highest scores were 266 by Ballard Spahr of Philadelphia, 262 by Reno & Cavanaugh of Nashville, Tenn., and 259 by Squire Sanders of Tampa.
Ric Gilmore, senior partner at Saxon/Gilmore, was recommended to the housing agency by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Tampa field office at an emergency meeting in September. That was just days after federal officials raided the BHA's offices during another meeting, asking board members to keep their hands on the table as agents seized documents and computer servers.
DeSue and projects manager Stephany West, his girlfriend, were fired in September after the raid and are being investigated by HUD for falsifying records and taking a trip to Jamaica on the taxpayers' dime.
BHA Board Chairman Napoleon Mills said he welcomes legitimate legal advice, but cautioned the board shouldn't get too comfortable just because it has a lawyer now.
"It would give us the confidence that we have someone to give us some legal advice, but in today's world, even having legal advice, there are things that come up that he, or they, or the agencies didn't cover appropriately and properly and we have to deal with it," Mills said.
Since September's emergency meeting, Gilmore has attended each BHA meeting. Gilmore also represents the Manatee County Housing Authority and several other housing authorities in Florida.
If Saxon/Gilmore is disqualified, the agency will refer to the next leading firm and invite others for consideration to be interviewed, Branch said.
The rates for each firm would vary depending on which member of the staff performs the services, Branch said.
The process for what information commissioners receive about bids before meetings needs to be tweaked, Mills said.
"I definitely would like to know what an agency is going to cost to work with me prior to me wanting to hire you," Mills said.
City Councilman Gene Gallo, who blasted the BHA last week, agreed board members ought to have rate and cost estimates before the meeting.
"You cannot select somebody like a law firm and they turn out to be running $10,000 an hour and someone else wants to be $300 an hour," Gallo said.
The law firms were ranked by three BHA employees, including Lance Clayton, development director, Branch said, and those meetings were recorded. Attorney firms were selected by five factors and maximum points:
Relevant experience -- 35 points.
Qualifications -- 25 points.
Responsiveness to the BHA proposal - 25 points.
Fee -- 10 points.
Size and structure of firm - 5 points.
The number of points in each category is discretionary, up to each bid evaluator, Branch said. For instance, 10 years of relevant experience would not earn 10 points -- the relevancy factors and points are subjective and evaluators may be asked to justify scores Thursday.
Mills said he's comfortable with evaluators having some power to decide on points, but he wants more insight on guidelines for awarding a point.
The board of commissioners meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the BHA office, 2002 Ninth Ave. E., to consider the bids.
Past legal counsel
The housing agency has been without general counsel for years as board members were kept in the dark by then-Executive Director Wenston DeSue on legal matters. DeSue would sometimes ask legal advice from a former attorney for the Bradenton Village project, Lynn Washington, according to housing authority emails. But it is unclear if he actually sought Washington's advice.
Washington recently pleaded guilty in Miami to stealing more than $520,000 from an affordable housing nonprofit there. Washington was supposed to come up with $100,000 restitution as part of a plea deal and to do community service, but now sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 7, according to court records.
Mills and Branch said they haven't heard anything more about Washington other than stories published in the Miami Herald and Bradenton Herald.
When the authority hires legal counsel, the new attorney will help the authority permanently undo much of the personnel manual under DeSue's tenure. The authority already suspended the luxurious bonus and sick time cash-out policies and will look to update the authority's policies and procedures this year, Branch said.
Counsel will also have to keep tabs on allowing public comment at meetings. The agency added a public comment slot to its agenda for its January meeting, but failed to schedule for public comments at its December and October meetings, which is an open meetings violation after a new Florida law went into effect Oct. 1.
Public boards and commissions in Florida are now required to allow public comment before the board takes action on an item other than minutes and proclamations.
The spending at the Bradenton Housing Authority has captured the attention of a U.S. senator compiling information about public housing agency issues. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is pushing for more transparency for tax dollars spent at housing authorities, urging HUD to disclose all salary data by posting it online.
"The more I look at housing authorities across the country, the more I see executives who leave no perk unexplored," Grassley said. "Every salary increase, generous vacation policy, travel opportunity, conference attendance, take-home vehicle, and self-perpetuating contract is fair game for those who seem to forget they work for the taxpayers.
"The Bradenton Housing Authority appears to fall in this category," he said. "I hope the experience of firing a director over allegations of not coming to work will lead to better governance in the future. Every dollar wasted is a dollar that instead should be used to provide safe, affordable housing for people in need, which is every housing authority's reason to exist."
To that end, the housing authority will also consider paying $1,850 to hire Management Resource Group from Atlanta to conduct a study comparing salaries for each housing authority employee, Branch said.
Branch could have executed the contract herself because of the contract amount, but said she wanted the board to decide in interest of openness.
Mills added that he would like to see what other companies offer in a salary survey before making a decision.
One salary under the microscope is the new executive director. DeSue made $171,060 when he was fired in September, and Branch is asking for $121,680 a year. The agency manages less than 250 units.
The survey will take 60 days to complete, Branch said.