In a segment that lasted almost 45 minutes, Historic City News watched as St Johns County Commissioners voted 4-1 to reject the five-year contract proposed last week by County Attorney Patrick McCormack.
Ponte Vedra Beach commission chair, Jay Morris, did not get his way; with the remaining commissioners from the newest, District 5 Commissioner Rachael Bennett and Vice Chairman Bill McClure, to the most senior, District 1 Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson, saying that they were not prepared to approve another 5-year contract extension with only a week’s notice.
“I just found out about this last week, and I was out of town three days on business,” Vice Chairman McClure said. “I haven’t had time to do my due diligence and we don’t even have our priorities as a commission set yet.”
McClure was referring to a public meeting scheduled for next Tuesday where the commissioners will present their own agendas for the coming year; priorities derived from their own conversations with constituents and their own experiences.
The commissioner who has the most experience on the Board, former Chair, Cyndi Stevenson, who began serving her third four-year term in office in January, spoke first to the agenda item. Stevenson also served under the former County Attorney, Daniel Bosanko, who she said left some “large shoes to fill”.
Stevenson identified what she sees as McCormack’s strengths; his service as a lawyer, not necessarily as a legal department manager. “Five years is a long time,” Stevenson told the audience, which included McCormack. “There is a lot to being a county attorney and a lot is expected — our previous county attorney really had a lot of experience.”
McClure was next to speak. He thanked McCormack for the work he’s done, so far. “I just got this Tuesday morning and asked for supporting documentation, which I have yet to receive from staff,” McClure began. “I have a problem with the fundamental process — the timing is bad and I’m not in favor of binding future commissions.”
McClure also remarked that feedback from constituents has not all been positive regarding McCormack and that it takes more than two or three months to get to know the quality and abilities of a department head of such importance.
“After we workshop our priorities as a commission next week, I’ll feel more comfortable knowing if McCormack is the best choice to fit in with those plans and priorities,” the Vice Chair said. “I don’t want to have to work my priorities around who is on staff … I want to be free to set priorities that can be achieved in the coming year and are supported by our residents; then we find the best people to accomplish those goals.”
A “whistleblower”, former Assistant County Attorney Paras Desai, approached the podium. He was arrested on January 10, 2011 — charged with eavesdropping and eight counts of “illegal interception of communications” in telephone calls with other county employees.
In a tense moment, Commissioner Sanchez told Desai to sit down and that “public comments are over” — not allowing him to speak to the issue of the County Attorney at that time. “I have the floor, now,” Sanchez told Desai, who sat down without incident.
Sanchez said he was satisfied with McCormack’s performance, overall, and went on to say that he was not going to “nitpick”. Sanchez told the other commissioners, “I am not going to have any problem supporting McCormack for the entire five years.”
“We’re gonna’ have lawsuits,” Sanchez quipped. “I’m happy how we made it through and I am ready to support the whole thing.”
When the floor came back to Morris, he allowed Desai three minutes to speak and we heard more about one of those “lawsuits” Sanchez was talking about. Desai put the blame for his false arrest squarely at McCormack’s feet. Desai, who passed a polygraph test as part of the investigation, said that he has a complete timeline of the events as they actually occurred while he was employed by the county.
Desai was said to have secretly recorded a phone conversation with county Environmental Division Director Jan Brewer without her knowledge or consent. The charges, which all essentially involved recorded phone conversations, included calls with Assistant County Attorney James Whitehouse, Assistant Personnel Director Lisa Roe, Assistant County Attorney Diane Lehmann, Assistant County Attorney Regina Ross and Risk Management Director Sarah Taylor.
According to the records of the Clerk of Court, all charges against Paraskumar Janakrai Desai were dropped by the State Attorney on July 7, 2011. According to Florida Bar records, Desai is a member in good standing with no disciplinary action since he was admitted in 2006. He is eligible to practice law in Florida. He was employed by St Johns County as an assistant county attorney October 23, 2006 and earned $74,971.51 annually. He currently has a private law practice in Jacksonville.
Chairman Morris said that in his “30+ years in business” at the head of a $500 million public corporation, he was not surprised with the terms of McCormack’s contract. “We gave a 3-year employment contract when we’d take over a new business, but the County Administrator tells me that a 5-year county contract is standard.”
Commissioner Stevenson said that she was aware of a planned reorganization of the county’s legal department that includes plans to bring in another “senior attorney” resulting in McCormack taking on a more administrative role. Stevenson said she fears they will be “building a department around him”.
“This department has had a lot of turnover and I’m concerned that we have the right people sitting in the right seats,” Stevenson added. “We have five attorneys in the department today and have had six resignations and one retirement under McCormack.”
Commissioner Bennett said that she has known McCormack for some time, even though she was only elected to her seat in November. That being said, she said she is not happy with the process that allows a position of such profound importance to renew at the beginning of a Board potentially made up of “freshmen commissioners”. Bennett added, “Any new board needs to have worked with the county attorney for at least 6 months before deciding on his contract.”
Under Florida Law, McCormack’s severance package would limit him to 20-weeks of compensation. Wanchick, whose severance payment would exceed $500,000 if this commission decided to terminate him, said that although some counties do an annual contract review, generally, 3 to 5 years is considered a normal contract term. Commenting on his own situation, as well as McCormack’s, Wanchick said, “It depends on whether you want stability in that position.”
McClure made a motion, seconded by Bennett, to wait until the next regular commission meeting, March 5, 2011, after the “goal setting” meeting next week, to vote on the renewal — however, after continued pushing from Morris to approve the contract today, McClure agreed to withdraw his previous motion, making a new motion to extend McCormack’s contract for six months beyond the sixty-days remaining on his existing contract. Bennett seconded, and the motion passed 4-1 with Morris in opposition.