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Sunrise Learns Hassles of Hiring a City Attorney With Conflicts

They should have seen this coming. Last year, when the Sunrise City Commission chose as its new city attorney, Stuart Michelson, it guaranteed itself a future full of ethical quandaries. The latest one is whether it's ethically appropriate for Michelson to advise a charter review board whose decisions will influence the division of power within city government. If not, it means that the city will have to pay the legal fees of some other lawyer, when that job would otherwise have been done by a conflict-free city attorney. Taxpayers would get double-dipped on.

No one is questioning Michelson's legal talents, which along with his history dealing with Sunrise court cases qualified him for the job. It's just that there was plenty to disqualify him. Michelson represented two commissioners -- Roger Wishner and Sheila Alu -- in a defamation suit brought by another aspiring commissioner, James DePelisi. Also, he'd previously represented the mayor in a civil matter, meaning that his ex-clients formed a majority of the Sunrise commission. Making appearances even worse, Michelson landed the job before the city bothered to invite other attorneys to bid for it. On top of that, the obliging commissioners changed city code to allow Michelson to continue doing private legal work. This saved the city $30,000, but was that worth the aggravation of having a city attorney who'd have to juggle his public responsibilities?

If all that weren't enough, Michelson then ignored the concerns of at least one commissioner (Alu) in deciding to be the treasurer of then-mayor Steven Feren's judicial campaign, a move that looked like payback, considering Feren helped give Michelson the job in Sunrise.

And oh yeah. Michelson's wife is Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, an association that has the potential to complicate the city's relationship with the county, plus raise another question of propriety should any of those commissioners get a favor from Lieberman in the future.

Part of the original basis for the charter review board, discussed at the commission's April 7 workshop, was to iron out obscure legal wrinkles like the one that catapulted Roger Wishner into the mayor's seat without an election, based on a ruling by (you guessed it) Michelson. So can Michelson himself be trusted to rule dispassionately on the legal merits of these parts of the charter? That depends on which commissioner you ask.

Let's put Commissioner Joey Scuotto down for an emphatic, "No!" His initial objection to Michelson's hiring was based on the attorney's not keeping an office at City Hall, which Scuotto reasoned would make him less available for untying Sunrise legal snags. He didn't go public with suspicions of chicanery until in November it became evident that one of Michelson's ex-clients (Wishner) would be unchallenged in his rise to mayor thanks to another ex-client (Feren) deciding not to leave office for his judgeship till early January. That decision left less than 120 days before the March 10 election, leading Michelson to cite language in the charter that said it was too short a time for a mayoral campaign. Scuotto was stunned. Or at least he appeared to be. Wishner, for one, says that as a commissioner of 12 years Scuotto ought to have known what the charter said about mayoral elections.**

Whatever the case, Scuotto suspected the threesome of being in cahoots. Then Feren accused Scuotto of having a grudge against Michelson based on Scuotto's having a grudge against Lieberman... oh, hell, just watch this Sun-Sentinel video from a Sunrise commission meeting to see how Scuotto reacted to that line of attack. Complicated? Like I said, it's what comes with hiring Michelson.

Commissioner Alu plays a more dynamic character in this drama. Before Michelson was a contender for the city attorney's job she says she had nothing but "extremely positive" encounters with Michelson. "I didn't have any problem with hiring him in the first place," she says. "He was an attorney for the city for a long time -- before he even met Ilene Lieberman. He sat in when the regular city attorney (most recently Kim Register) wasn't there. He knows the history of the city."

The one factor in the minus category was Michelson's political connections. He assured her, says Alu, that he'd be circumspect about keeping his private associations out of his public work. She believed that and didn't have any second thoughts until shortly after a disquieting conversation with Michelson: "He asked 'What about my being Feren's campaign treasurer?'" Alu recalls. "I said it was a terrible idea." He did it anyway, and Alu admits that "In the end, we looked horrible."

And though Alu and Scuotto have frequently been at odds during their time sharing a commission dais, she thinks Scuotto had every reason to be furious over the legal ruling that transferred the mayoral reins from Feren to Wishner.

Of the charter review board, Alu stresses that it should be "totally independent," and it sounds like she's leaning toward hiring outside counsel to advise the board.

The new guy, Commissioner Larry Sofield, who was appointed to Wishner's seat when Wishner took over as mayor, has not yet made up his mind on whether Michelson should have a role with the charter review board. I asked him about the possibility of the board considering a change in the charter that would have political implications for Wishner. "I do have a little bit of concern on that issue," says Sofield. "That's why I want to find out more information before I make up my mind."

Nothing but a personal hunch here, but it sounds to me like Sofield's leaning ever so slightly toward assigning the city attorney to the board, if only because it seems Sofield has found little reason to question Michelson's motives so far. "From what I've seen," says Sofield, "Stuart Michelson's done a great job."

For his part, Mayor Wishner expresses complete faith in Michelson's being an impartial adviser to the board and expects him to serve on it. But if the need for a charter review started with the ruling that made Wishner mayor, isn't it likely that the board will take a close look at the powers granted that figure by the city charter? "I have no clue what the charter review board will want to bring up as a valid question to the city commission," says Wishner.

He argues that every city attorney who advises a charter review board will have to monitor himself. "The only area of conflict that might come up is if the board looks at the city attorney's  office," says Wishner. "If anything like that came up -- that or anything else -- the city attorney would ask for outside counsel."

Scuotto has floated an idea that he thinks would be more equitable: Bring proposed charter changes to a vote of the people. That's a dead end, says Wishner, because the charter specifies that the commission must authorize changes.

Wishner and the four commissioners will each appoint two people to the charter review board. One must be a Sunrise resident registered to vote. They'll soon be taking applications.

**UPDATE: I had another brief discussion with Wishner this afternoon. Based on that conversation I added a few sentences to the original post. I've marked them in bold print above. In addition, Wishner maintained that Michelson has saved the city in excess of $200,000 in fees by keeping legal duties in-house that would otherwise have been put out to outside counsel.

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Thomas Francis

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