For the first time in 17 years, the Palm Coast City Council is having to shop for a new law firm: Neysa Borkert, the city attorney, is leaving Dec. 15. It’s not a position the city wanted to be in. “That represents a surprise big change for us right now,” Mayor David Alfin said.
Unlike the Flagler County School Board, which is readying to fire its in-house attorney of 19 years without cause, the Palm Coast council would hang on to Borkert for dear life if it could. But Borkert’s firm is, essentially, firing Palm Coast: with Borkert gone, it won’t be able to do the job past a transition period, since the firm is also losing Borkert and won’t be replacing her.
The council at a special workshop this morning agreed to issue a request for proposal and hunt for a law firm able to mirror the city’s current legal services. The word council members and staffers used to describe what they’re looking for is “robust.” They used it 10 times, though perhaps the word they meant was “nimble,” since their current law firm is not into professional gastronomy, evangelism or fitness gurus.
Orland–based Garganese, Weiss, D’Argesta and Salzman has provided legal services to Palm Coast uninterruptedly since 2008. The firm by city charter designates one person to be the council’s attorney. Bill Reischmann did that for 17 years, Borkert has done it the last two, both developing solid working relationships with the council and the administration. The firm has 19 attorneys, but typically, based on a city analysis of billing, the firm has generally provided services from five to nine of its staff members, including paralegals and other support staff. The firm’s Jennifer Nix and Catherine Reischmann, attorneys both, provide services to the city on such panels as the animal control board, the planning board, and the code enforcement board, with additional as-needed services for human resources and other matters.
“Our firm does soup to nuts practically for the city of Palm Coast,” Anthony Garganese, a shareholder at the firm, said. Most of the cost is covered by the city’s retainer. Some of it is billed outside the retainer. The city is budgeting $685,000 for city attorney costs this year. Garganese described Palm Coast as a “significant-sized client with a lot of demands.”
Borkert, a partner at the firm, is “moving on to an in house position and going in a different direction,” Garganese said. He did not specify for whom she is to be in-house counsel. Borkert had not yet replied to an email before this article initially published. “So the firm at this stage is not in a position to provide the city attorney day to day services in dealing with the council’s robust schedule,” such as covering every Tuesday meeting of the council. The firm can better handle the services beyond that, such as specialty legal services.
The council had three choices, based on a presentation by Assistant City Manager Lauren Johnston. Sticking with Garganese Weiss is not one of them. The city could issue a request for proposal. It could create an in-house attorney position, which would also require hiring supporting staff. Or it could go for a hybrid.
The City Council hires and fires only two positions: that of city manager, and that of city attorney. So this decision is entirely the council’s.
“The simplest path forward in my mind is to instruct staff to prepare an RFP which you all would have to approve,” Alfin told his colleagues, “that would identify or locate a firm which does exactly what our current firm does, for the purpose of finding out if such a firm exists.” He got support from all council members, with Ed Danko also floating the idea of in-house counsel if a replacement firm couldn;t be found. But he was picking one over the other at this point.
It will be a challenge for the council to find a local firm capable of doing the job. “There are a significant number of firms that do local government law statewide. We’re not the only one by any stretch,” Gargenese said, though he conceded that in the Central Florida region, there would be three to six firms.
Council member Theresa Pontieri, herself an attorney, wants “an all inclusive local government specialized firm.” She noted her role as the Flagler County Sheriff’s in-house counsel to make her next point: “Being that I have been albeit temporarily an in-house counsel, you are limited in what you can do. There’s just so much that falls under this umbrella of everything that Neysa and the law firm does for us. I think that we do need a very robust firm that actually specializes in all of these things and I don’t think we’ll be able to get that with in-house counsel.” Pontieri would also prefer not to be too limiting in the search, geographically.
The council also agreed to invite County Attorney Al Hadeed to advise the council on its search at a future workshop. Hadeed has been the county attorney since 2007.
The administration will draft the RFP and submit it to the council for review at the next workshop on Dec. 12.
Meanwhile, Garganese told the council, “we’ll work with Neysa as she transitions out of the firm, to make sure that all of the matters that she’s working on are either completed before she leaves or will be picked up by another lawyer in my firm, including myself to make sure that this the city’s legal services are met.” After she leaves, the firm would still staff the council’s meetings “until you all determine what is in your best interest and we fully support whatever decision the city council wants to make.”
Alfin thanked Garganese and his firm for its long service to Palm Coast, and other council members did likewise to Borkert.