With tension soaring between the West Palm Beach city commission and Mayor Jeri Muoio and her legal staff, commissioners on Monday hired their own part-time attorney for second opinions.
Charles Schoech, a West Palm Beach native and attorney for Caldwell, Pacetti, Edwards, Schoech & Viator, edged out Thomas Baird of Jupiter. Schoech received three first-place votes from commissioners while Baird received two.
Julie Klhar of Ft. Lauderdale was the other finalist and did not receive a first-place vote.
West Palm Beach is the only city in Palm Beach County with a strong mayor form of government. Under that system, the city attorney is hired and fired by the mayor and not the commission.
Schoech will be the first attorney hired separately by the commission since voters enacted the strong mayor system in 1991.
Schoech said it is not uncommon for a city commission to hire special counsel for specific issues, but he said he doesn’t know of a similar situation where a commission hired its own part-time attorney separate from the city attorney for unspecified future issues.
Schoech said he believes having two attorneys available will ease tensions between the commission and city administration and not make for more animosity.
“It will improve that entire situation because I think they will have the benefit of two attorneys looking at the issues,” Schoech said.
City Attorney Claudia McKenna, who has her own full-time staff of eight attorneys, did not speak during the two hour special meeting except to discuss procedural matters of the meeting.
Schoech, who specializes in governmental law, told commissioners that he wants to cooperate with McKenna and her staff.
“It should never be a combative or an argumentative position,” Scohech said. “It should be a position of cooperation, a position of bringing a second set of eyes to the question at hand and to develop a check and balance.”
Several opinions by McKenna over the last year have been second-guessed by commissioners, including the process to replace former Commissioner Bill Moss, who died last year after he was elected to his seventh term in office but before the new term began.
On Monday, Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell repeatedly brought up last year’s vote on rezoning the Palm Beach Mall to outlet shops. McKenna told commissioners they could only consider design elements of the project and not hiring practices when approving the project. Mitchell disagreed and said Monday that because there is a division of power between the mayor and commissioners, the city attorney “can’t play both sides sometimes.”
The commission previously budgeted $10,000 toward a part-time attorney for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Keith James, the commission president, said he hopes not to exceed that figure but didn’t rule it out.