BROOKSVILLE — On Sept. 7, Brooksville City Councilwoman Betty Erhard asked her colleagues to reevaluate their contract with the municipality's law firm after lambasting the attorney's performance.
The next day, the Vose Law Firm gave officials 60 days’ notice it was resigning as the city attorney without saying why, but no one around City Hall thinks the two events are unrelated. Erhard said the contract needed to be reevaluated because the firm is getting paid $150,000 a year, but it has committed three errors in recent months.
“It's sad we lost the firm, but it was time,” Erhard said. “Nobody's looking at the contract. It's my job to protect the spending.”
According to Vose's website, the firm offers “local government representation” across Florida. Based in Winter Park, the firm was founded by Gretchen Vose in 1973.
In her letter to the council, Vose stated the firm was giving 60 days’ notice and would be willing to continue to represent the city until a replacement or interim attorney can be hired during that time.
“We will, of course, ensure that there will be an orderly transition of legal files and on-going legal matters,” her letter stated.
“The attorneys of our firm have enjoyed working with the many staff members and elected officials of the city over the last several years. We wish the City only the best in the future.”
The firm was hired as the city attorney on Sept. 17, 2017.
Recently, Erhard has repeatedly included the law firm on a list of elected officials and staffers who are not handling their duties properly. She blamed Vose, then-City Manager Mark Kutney and others for allowing the city to accidentally sell its public water tower May 5 by relying on an inaccurate legal description of the property, a major reason Kutney was fired a month later. She said she wanted to review Vose’s contract because of that mistake plus two others: A basic typographical error in another city contract, and what she said was an inaccurate legal opinion given by the firm on the legality of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency donating money to Brooksville Main Street (BMS).
“That's the big one,” Erhard said of the opinion.
BMS is a nonprofit group that supports “economic development and revitalization” through special events aimed at supporting downtown businesses and local attractions. For six years the city has directly given money to the group to help defray expenses like street closures needed to hold certain events. Last year that amount was $30,500.
At the previous council meeting the law firm rendered an opinion that the city's Community Redevelopment Agency could make the contribution to the BMS this year, noting other cities use that method. Erhard said just two hours before the Sept. 7 session Vose informed her there had been a change in state statutes in 2019 prohibiting the CRA from doing so.
Made up of the council members, the CRA was formed in 1999 under state statutes to improve 104 acres of the downtown section by removing blighted areas and reconditioning run-down properties.
Last September, Erhard apologized for posting a message on a Facebook page urging locals to boycott businesses that support BMS, referring to the city as “Crooksville.” It resulted in an attempt to remove her from office in a petition drive.
She said her concerns about the group center on a lack of financial accountability. The councilwoman said if the group wants donations using tax dollars it should provide bookkeeping, invoices, receipts and other records showing how the money is spent.
“We figured out they've received close to $1 million from the city and the county over the years,” she said.
BMS Executive Director Natalie Kahler could not be reached at press time.
Councilman Blake Bell was also concerned the funding request was placed on the agenda at the last minute: “It is troubling that we found out about this today” as we're going into budget negotiations, he said. “In any other situation this is not good.”
Mayor Pat Brayton accepted responsibility for the scheduling, adding, “The buck stops here.”
Erhard also demanded to know how Brayton can tell who gets the money.
“I sign the checks, so I do know who it's made out to,” Brayton said, adding the recipient is also designated in the city budget.
The council voted 3-2 to make a $50,000 contribution to BMS from the city's General Fund, with Erhard and Vice Mayor Robert Battista dissenting.
The attorney's contract wasn't the only one needing revision, according to Erhard.
Noting the city is looking for a permanent city manager, she also wants the council to amend the contract for that post by removing the stipend Brooksville pays to help cover costs of a vehicle. Typically, the city manager frequently has to drive out of town to conferences, seminars and other meetings as part of his duties.
As was the case with Vose, Erhard's request came after she criticized acting City Manager Ron Snowberger for his handling of a request for money from BMS. Brayton placed that discussion on the Sept. 20 council meeting agenda.
She did not specify if the proposed change would apply to Snowberger.
However, Erhard has criticized his performance since taking over two months ago, and she added him to the list of people who were responsible for the BMS funding issue.
Snowberger responded he relied on Vose’s legal opinion. “For you to come out and say you're holding me responsible is irresponsible. I have no responsibility in this,” he stated, adding he was offended by her comments.
Regarding Vose, Brayton said he thanked the firm for “staying with us until we find another attorney, and for their service.” He noted some firms charge $150 for every phone call compared to Vose, who saved the city money by charging a flat retainer fee no matter how much work they handled.
Erhard continued to lament what she described as a pattern of abuse she has suffered during her six years on the council.
“I get blocked, I get bullied, I get sued, and now I've got an ethics violation,” she said. “Council once a week gives me a hard time because I ask questions.”