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BOCC Looks to Clague to Succeed Palmer as County Attorney

BRADENTON – Manatee County Attorney Mitchell Palmer has announced his retirement effective January 2021. At Tuesday's meeting, commissioners were presented with three options regarding a search process to find Palmer's replacement and voted unanimously to enter discussions with deputy county attorney Bill Clague.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore immediately motioned to move forward with an internal selection with Clague, who was a candidate when Palmer was hired in 2011. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy seconded the motion.

Whitmore said that not only was she very confident in Clague's ability but did not think the current state of affairs regarding the COVID crisis was conducive to conducting an exhaustive search, a sentiment echoed on both fronts by commissioners Misty Servia and Betsy Benac.

Commissioner Priscilla Trace added her vocal support for Clague, while Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was the only commissioner to express reservations. Baugh said she had confidence in Clague but felt that the county owed it to its citizens to "see who and what was out there instead of picking the first thing in sight."

The motion to enter into discussions to hire Clague as successor to Palmer passed unanimously.

The following options were presented to the board:

Option #1 (Internal Selection) is to choose the successor from among the existing staff in the County Attorney's Office. The selection of a County Attorney is a matter that involves the establishment of an attorney-client relationship and the Board is not required to engage in a competitive process. If more than one of the existing lawyers currently in the County Attorney's Office would-be candidates, the Board would have to conduct interviews or some evaluative process to reach a majority decision on who would be successor. There is no cost to this option.

Advantages: Cost-effective as there is no need to advertise, the number of applicants is greatly reduced and simplified, whoever is chosen is already known to the Commissioners, Administrator, Constitutional Officers, county staff and the legal community; the candidate is already familiar with the County Attorney's Office in terms of personnel, current issues and the history of the County, the systems in place, the culture and political issues and local government law in general.

Disadvantages: Selecting from in-house without a search process could create tension within the office among competing candidates and office personnel; the pool of applicants is limited in this case, and the need for the County Attorney to hire another attorney to replace the one who is promoted to County Attorney.

Option #2 (Advertise in Florida Bar and local Law publications and use a Screening Committee) is to advertise for the position in the Florida Bar News, Manatee and Sarasota County Bar Association newsletters, and the Florida Association of County Attorney's website. Over 107,000 members of the Florida Bar receive the Florida Bar News and it would be expected that the Board would receive a large number of interested applicants. Under this approach, you would need a process to screen the applicants in order to create a manageable "shortlist".

A method to screen the initial applications to ensure applicants met minimum qualifications and to identify a shortlist of the top candidates would be for the Board to identify specific members to act as the screening committee. This committee could include the outgoing County Attorney, County Administrator/designee, Clerk of Courts/designee, and possibly local or regional attorneys. The applicants on the shortlist could then be interviewed by the Board in public meetings before you vote on one to begin negotiations for a contract. The cost of this recruitment option is approximately $250.

Advantages: Any of the Attorneys in the office would be allowed to compete; a large pool of well-qualified attorneys is likely to develop with the large number of members of the Florida Bar News, this option creates an opportunity for new and fresh ideas in the County Attorney's Office; the process should be viewed as fair and unbiased by applicants in terms of the initial applicant pool, which should have a more positive impact on the existing CAO personnel.

Disadvantages: The process is more cumbersome than Option #1 as there will be a larger volume of
candidates to vet. If an outside attorney were selected, the additional potential disadvantages could include: impacted morale by CAO staff personnel by the prospect of an outsider for a new leader; the Board may be at a disadvantage by not knowing the candidate in terms of personality and work ethic, work style and vice versa; the additional learning curve for the new County Attorney and CAO staff to get to know each other, and a non-resident of Manatee County would need to relocate and the Board would likely need to pay relocation expenses.

Option#3 (Executive Search Firm) is to utilize the services of an Executive Search Firm (in place of a Board appointed screening committee) to assist the Board in recruiting for and vetting out applicants for the development of a shortlist for then the Board to interview as outlined in Option #2. The cost of this recruitment option could be $15,000-$20,000.

Advantages: Same as Option #2 and an outside perspective during the screening process with the use of the Executive Firm as opposed to local leaders.

Disadvantages: Same as Option #2, but in addition, the expense for this option to contract with the search firm would be the costliest of the three options for the Board to consider; typically an Executive Search Firm will search nationally and internationally for applicants and this position must be filled with an Attorney licensed by the Florida Bar so when comparing the cost with the pool of viable applicants, the Board may not see a return on that investment.

In 2011 when the former County Attorney Tedd Williams announced his retirement, the Board elected to use Option #2 for their process. Upon advertisement, there were 19 qualified applicants. The Board Selected the following professionals to act as the Screening Committee: Tedd Williams Esq., Ed Hunzeker, Richard "Chips" Shore, Chip Rice Esq., Cliff Walters Esq., and Caleb Grimes Esq.

The process began in October 2011 with Board direction and a candidate, Mitchell Palmer was selected and began employment as County Attorney Designate on April 18, 2012, until Mr. Williams retired at the end of April 2012. This allowed the outgoing and incoming Attorneys two weeks to assist in the transition, which would be recommended in this case.


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