Paying for Commissioners’ attorneys

County Commissioners Marie Young, Grover Robinson and Kevin White voted Thursday for the taxpayers to front attorney’s fees for their defenses of teh civil lawsuits filed individually against them by Forrest Gibbs, who was hired and then fired as marketing director for Escambia County Equestrian Center.

When Judge Linda Nobles denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuits, County Attorney Alison Rogers notified the commissioners that she could not represent them and advised them to get their own defense attorneys.

Commissioners Wilson Robertson and Gene Valentino, who aren’t being sued, opposed the county paying for the legal defenses. Robertson told the commissioners that he didn’t agree with the motion because “the three commissioners that were charged personally and not as in the duty of a county commissioner.” Commissioner Wilson Robertson, who is not being sued by Gibbs, said.

Gibbs held the Equestrian Center job for about two weeks in October 2011 until being fired by County Administrator Randy Oliver following a series of articles on the daily newspaper by former reporter Jamie Paige. The articles asserted that Wilson Robertson influenced Gibb’s hiring and pushed for mot to be paid $63,000, which was higher than the advertised salary.

The State Attorney investigated the hiring and found no wrongdoing. Then Gibbs filed suit in Escambia County Circuit Court against Commissioners White, Young and Robinson claiming that the trio had interfered with his employment and had improperly removed him from his new job. The suit did not name Escambia County as a defendant.

Commissioner Valentino read the following statement into the record:

On January 12th, 2012, the County Commission voted to hold a “Shade” meeting “…to discuss pending litigation.” The advertised notice did not identify what kind of litigation; litigation from a 3rd party against the county or litigation from anyone against a commissioner. The Administrator brought it up as an agenda item. Missing from the Commission meeting were myself and Grover Robinson.

There has been in my opinion a serious violation of due process again. You have put the county commission at risk on a few levels:

First, at hand involves a legal claim by a former employee: wherein 3 commissioners directed the Administrator to terminate this individual. At question is not only whether these commissioners had the authority to direct the Administrator to terminate the employee, but now, today, one commissioner has acted inappropriately by putting the county at further risk by discussing matters which were discussed under seal, in confidence, in an “attorney/client” setting. He did so openly before the public this morning. For this reason, I could not technically respond to his distorted comments which did not represent my position and another commissioner’s position.

Never in the history of Escambia County have we had to consider using county lawyers or consider paying for their lawyers upfront…with public dollars to defend elected officials for actions outside the scope of their duties. And if the majority of the commissioners here today feel we should vote on this matter, then the least we could expect is that those poised to benefit in this way should abstain from voting, consistent with our State Public Ethics Laws, and like we did for every other vote. As you know the media is quick to report that the mere appearance of a conflict of interest is a conflict of interest.

After the vote to cover the legal fees passed 3-2, Valentino made a motion to have the County Attorney’s Office to study and propose a policy that would address the retention of outside counsel and a policy that would address reimbursement of attorney fees. It passed 5-0.