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City Attorney Worth the Expense, Says Mayor

Sunrise Mayor Roger Wishner, facing scrutiny for having been among those commissioners who hired his former attorney Stuart Michelson as the city attorney, provided Juice with documents suggesting that in Michelson's first six months on the job, he has helped the city save more than a half-million dollars. The documents, prepared for a commission meeting several weeks ago, tell of legal services Michelson performed for the city that might otherwise have been handled by an outside counsel, as well as significant increases in money recovered during Michelson's tenure, which started officially last August.

Michelson landed the city attorney's job without its having been put out to bid. Besides Wishner, he'd also previously performed legal work for Commissioner Sheila Alu and ex-Mayor Steven Feren -- a friend for whom Michelson served as campaign treasurer in Feren's successful bid for a judicial post.

The documents arrived as a response to my Juice post from Thursday, in which I placed Michelson's complex history and political ties into the context of an upcoming charter review board. It's not yet clear a majority of the commission trusts Michelson to be an impartial observer to that board, meaning that the city may have to pay for outside counsel.

Wishner says that Michelson has been unfairly maligned.

The documents present Michelson's work in a favorable light, but ultimately there are too many ambiguities in them to make an informed judgment. It's hard to know whether the savings the city saw under Michelson is attributable to him or to a range of other potential factors.

Example: The vast majority of additional money recovered by the city since the beginning of Michelson's tenure is based on a big jump in forfeitures -- $17,718 collected between August 2007 and January 2008 when Michelson wasn't there. A whopping $201,592 from his start in August 2008 to January 2009. That's great, but it seems to me that monies recovered from forfeitures would swing wildly based on unpredictable events -- like some big police bust that involves seizing valuable goods purchased with illegally gotten cash. (Wishner told me he would look into this and get back to me about what Michelson may have done to increase collections.)

The most persuasive evidence of Michelson's cost-saving is in the marked decline in fees paid by the city to outside counsel, found from comparing the same six-month periods over the past three years. Of the six law firms most frequently asked to do legal work for Sunrise, five of them collected less in fees during Michelson's time than they had for the same period in the prior year.

Still, the $287,529 savings touted in the packet appears to be distorted by the fact the city paid a huge sum in outside legal fees in the previous year's period. From $340,000 in the period two years ago, the bills jumped all the way up to $518,000, so that the most recent period's $230,000 in bills looked tiny by comparison.

Clearly, those figures are liable to bounce around depending on factors the city attorney has little control over, such as whether other employees leave the city vulnerable to expensive lawsuits.

Also, it seems a bit peculiar that the single law firm that increased its billing in each of those periods over the last three years was Michelson's firm. It was paid $44,000 in outside counsel fees while Michelson himself was being paid a $432,000 salary as the city's full-time attorney. I hope there's a good explanation for that.

It must be said that these documents were submitted to the commission with the intent of demonstrating Michelson's frugality. Typically, we'd prefer to have a more disinterested information gatherer. In addition, an outsider has no way to know whether Michelson's predecessor, Kim Register, ran a tight ship or if she was sloppy about cost-cutting. One needs to know that because Michelson is being judged relative to her work.

Finally, whatever savings Michelson has been able to realize in his first six months in the job must be compared against the additional cost of paying this city attorney versus the last city attorney. Register reportedly made about $167,000, less than half of what Michelson is being paid.

To Michelson's credit, the documents indicate he started working full-time at the job 11 days before he actually started collecting that salary, at a savings for the city of $13,000. He also deserves congratulation for his legal victories in the private sector on behalf of hurricane victims who might otherwise have been short-changed by Citizens Property Insurance.

Despite efforts by Commissioner Joey Scuotto and former commission contender James DePelisi, there's no clear-cut evidence that Michelson's past ties to public officials have compromised his objectivity.

It's just that because of those ties, Michelson warrants a closer monitoring, not just by the public but by Sunrise commissioners and city staff. That's the deal he made when he took the job.

In my conversations with Wishner, he has compared the city's selection of a city attorney to that of a patient considering a doctor. If a patient knows one doctor to be excellent, to have performed successful operations on his friends and family, then shouldn't the patient pick that doctor for his own operation? That, says Wishner, is the same logic that led him and other commissioners to pick a city attorney whose sharp legal skills they had seen in action.

But I don't think it's quite right as an analogy. This isn't purely a question of competence. It's a question of possible bias. Putting that factor into play, let's revise our analogy: The patient knows firsthand of an excellent doctor and would have that doctor remove the kidney that will save the life of the patient's son. Only that doctor's son also needs a kidney to save his life. The patient has faith in the doctor's skill and integrity. On the other hand, there are lots of doctors who would have no temptation to swipe a kidney. In this scenario, isn't the smart move to hire a doctor whose judgment would not potentially be clouded by temptation? And aren't there plenty of lawyers who could handle legal duties for the city of Sunrise who do not have a range of potential conflicts like Michelson?

"Yeah, there are some bad guys and bad girls out there," says Wishner. "But there are other people who do a good job and care about the work they're doing." Michelson, he says, deserves some benefit of the doubt.

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Thomas Francis

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