The hometown lawyer who asked Gulf Breeze City Council to recommend his firm for a contract worth at least $156,000 for legal representation heard critics who appeared before the panel on Thursday say in no uncertain terms that someone else should get the job.
“I don’t like you,” said Noah Berry, a longtime Gulf Breeze resident who stood at the podium during a public forum after Ben Zimmern and two rivals for the open job as city attorney made their cases.
Zimmern took the criticism head on when Berry and community leader Terry Mead raised doubts about how the candidate’s law firm– Galloway, Johnson, Tomkins and Burr—has handled a long-running property rights case that has cost the city fees that exceed $700,000 in a perpetually losing cause.
“Obviously the results are not what we hoped for,” said Zimmern, referring to the so-called Catawba “Land Grab” case, in which the city
is sparring with two homeowners over a narrow strip of land between their houses. The city claims the land—essentially a path that leads to a small stretch of shoreline on Santa Rosa Sound—is a park.
But various judges have been ruling against the city time after time in the case, which Gulf Breeze is currently appealing in Tallahassee as the Galloway Johnson legal bills keep piling up.
The city attorney job came open earlier this year when Michael Stebbins resigned amid a political shakeup.
Mead, a high-profile critic of the city’s conduct who has helped orchestrate an outbreak of yard signs in support of the two homeowners, said: “We can only judge on results, and Galloway Johnson has lost every time.”
Indeed, Zimmern’s firm took over as the city’s lead counsel on the case four years ago and has little to show for it—except that one judge capped the amount of the homeowners’ legal fees that the city must pay at about two-thirds of the $370,000 they were seeking.
Mead didn’t get an answer from Zimmern or council members when he pointedly asked, “Did you ever give the city any advice that maybe we should just drop this?”
At least two council members, David Landfair and Tom Naile, have said publicly they favor ending the matter but neither has introduced a motion to get their colleagues to vote on it.
Zimmern, the son of former Gulf Breeze Mayor Beverly Zimmern, acknowledged his own doubts about the case: “I’m going to toss and turn again tonight” thinking about it.
Pensacola-based Galloway Johnson, which has 110 lawyers in several states, is competing with two other firms for the lucrative Gulf Breeze job: Beggs & Lane and Shell, Fleming, both also based in Pensacola.
A Beggs & Lane representative said that firm is seeking a retainer of $10,000 a month, plus hourly fees for certain cases.
Galloway Johnson is asking for a $13,000 monthly retainer, plus hourly fees for the handling of certain legal matters
Shell Fleming is asking to be paid hourly without a retainer. Geoffrey Brodersen, an attorney for Shell Fleming, told the council on Thursday: “Pay us for what we actually do for you.”
The council members, who gave no indication which firm they favor, are expected to pick one of the firms later in July.