City of Ocala moves one step closer to in-house legal department

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Posted August 29, 2022 | Jennifer Hunt Murty
jennifer@ocalagazette.com

Editor’s Note: On August 30, 2022 the Gazette was informed by Councilman Musleh that Mr. Saunders has withdrawn his acceptance. 

During an Aug. 26 special Ocala City Council meeting, council members met with three applicants to become the City of Ocala attorney and by a majority vote chose to make an offer to James E. Saunders, Esq., who currently is an assistant city attorney for the City of Pompano Beach.

As Ocala’s lead attorney, Saunders would then be responsible for building the rest of the city’s legal department.

The other candidate who was strongly considered was William Sexton, currently working as the attorney for Bradford County and whose wife has family roots in Ocala.

The Vose Law Firm, a private firm that represents multiple government entities all over the state, also applied for the spot.

Last March, the Ocala City Council departed from its 30-year history of retaining the same private law firm to provide legal services and instructed city management to start the process of building an in-house legal department. During the Aug. 26 meeting, the council members collectively reaffirmed their commitment to building an in-house legal department.

The contract for the current city attorneys–Robert Batsel Jr., Jimmy Gooding and Patrick Gilligan—ends on Oct. 1. Batsel and Gooding had announced last year that they would be splitting off from the firm, now called Gilligan, Anderson & Phelan, P.A., and focusing primarily on representing their developer clients. They would continue, however, to share office space with their former firm and finish their contract with the city.

Their contract paid the law firm approximately $1 million per year. The city expects to spend $1 million annually on the new in-house team, including a salary of $190,000 to $210,000 for Saunders.

The council president, Ire Bethea, asked councilman Jay Musleh to take lead negotiating the final details with Saunders on behalf of the council.

Saunders, when questioned by the council as to when he could start, indicated that he’d need to give his current employer three to four weeks notice and also need time to find housing.

Saunders indicated his wife of 28 years is a high school teacher and that both of their aging parents live in Miami-Dade so arrangements would likely delay her joining him immediately in Ocala.

When the council offered Saunders the position, they teasingly chided him for the fact that he went to the University of Miami and is a “Hurricane.” Councilman Barry Mansfield jokingly stood up and flashed the orange lining of his navy blazer, noting the colors of the University of Florida Gator football team, and asked if he could reconsider this vote.

One of the topics during the meeting was about whether the city should retain the services of the Vose Law Firm as back up to Saunders while he staffs up his department.

Councilmember Kristen Dreyer voiced that they should continue to use the Gilligan firm “for the sake of institutional knowledge” rather than bring on a new firm.

The Gilligan firm has agreed to stay on under a retainer agreement with the city to support Saunders until he can staff his department. However, a city spokesperson has indicated that a contract has not yet been proposed.

Batsel indicated during the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 16 that he’d be available to help on a case by case basis, however, statutes prevent attorneys who provide “routine” representation of the city to bring applications on behalf of developers to that same city. Batsel expected after his and Gooding’s city attorney contracts were up that there would be private clients asking for them to represent them inside the Ocala city limits.

The city council hired the firm Colin Baenziger & Associates to find candidates for lead in-house city attorney. The firm is being paid $42,000 for its efforts.

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Digital extra: Saunders’ resume and letter to the council: Section-3-Saunders-James-Ocala-City-Attorney-Candidate-Report.pdf