BRADENTON -- The Bradenton Housing Authority will have guidance from a legal firm that has helped other troubled public housing authorities get back on track as the board voted Thursday to hire Saxon/Gilmore of Tampa.
Only three of five BHA commissioners attended Thursday's meeting. Chairman Napoleon Mills, Rigo Rivera and Lois Gerber all voted to select Saxon/Gilmore.
The law firm also repre
sents the Manatee County Housing Authority; Sarasota Housing Authority, which was once in receivership; and Sanford Housing Authority, which was also taken over by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after an investigation.
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"I'm very comfortable with" the law firm, BHA interim Executive Director Darcy Branch told the board. "I think he has also shown in the last few months when we needed something that he's very knowledgeable."
BHA was without sitting general counsel during former BHA Executive Director Wenston DeSue's term from 2006 to his firing in September following a federal raid of its offices. At times the authority hired legal help for one-time expenses such as evictions, and also paid for attorney Lynn Washington to help develop Bradenton Village.
At times, DeSue gave commissioners the impression Washington was authorized to give general legal advice to the board. Washington faces sentencing Feb. 7 for a grand theft charge in Miami after pleading guilty to swindling a nonprofit there out of $520,000.
Ricardo Gilmore is expected to help BHA overhaul its personnel manual, including eradicating problematic bonus policies, guiding the authority through an executive director search and helping structure its meetings to follow Sunshine laws.
Gilmore, first appointed in September on the recommendation of the Tampa HUD field office, said he has a grasp on how to help the housing authority.
"One, is a little training, and two, is to just make sure they're in contact with some of the people at the HUD office they report to that I talk to on behalf of other authorities quite routinely, that's what I see my role as," Gilmore said.
Gilmore will also ask HUD for suggestions on how the BHA needs to operate.
"I'm hoping we can get that line open so we can talk with the HUD office back and forth," Mills said. "I'm sure one of the things we need to hear is when we get audits back that have a 99 percent rating, that we need to make sure that HUD has seen that audit."
The commission is expected to expand its board to seven members after Mayor Wayne Poston said he wants to add a member. Bradenton Village resident Norma Dunwoody submitted a letter to the authority Thursday to be considered as a resident commissioner.
Housing authorities are required to have one resident as commissioner. Previous resident commissioner Gilbert Jones moved out of housing authority property, but is still on the board.
The mayor would have to appoint Dunwoody to the board during a City Council meeting.
Branch said she is working on the fiscal 2015 budget to determine how much the authority can spend on legal counsel for the year. The authority's fiscal year begins April 1. Gilmore said he's going to do the best he can to make services affordable considering the authority's situation and its budget deficit.
"Lawyers are expensive, and I apologize for that," Gilmore said. "We want to help you get your ship righted. We have some experience at helping getting ships righted. We will try to control our costs as best we can."
Saxon/Gilmore's rate is $230 to $250 an hour, according to Lance Clayton, BHA development director. Fees from applicant firms ranged from $185 an hour to $700 an hour, he said, and some law firms with higher fees can send cheaper attorneys. The most common fee was $350 an hour, he said.
Several firms applied from out of state. The lowest-scored firm, Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer of Miami, was more of a worker's compensation lawyer with no housing authority experience, Clayton said.
Gilmore excused himself during the board's discussion when deliberating about a new firm to avoid a conflict of interest.
"Saxon/Gilmore addressed the issues much more thoroughly and was more responsive to our requests. Many of the other responders focused mainly on mixed findings," Clayton said. "They really didn't address the local needs of the housing authority as Saxon/Gilmore did."
Mills said he wants to see all contract bid requests, and a resident to sit on the evaluation committee and have all request for qualifications bids be sent directly to local firms.