Brevard County Attorney Eden Bentley, who has worked in the county attorney’s office since 1986, is scheduled to retire on Nov. 1, 2021. (Photo: PROVIDED PHOTO)
Brevard County commissioners have decided their game plan for selecting a new county attorney to succeed Eden Bentley, who will retire next year. But they weren’t in full agreement during their debate on the issue at their Aug. 4 meeting.
Bentley is in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, and is scheduled to retire on Nov. 1, 2021. A search for Bentley’s successor will begin in March or April.
The majority of commissioners decided the county should seek applicants with at least five years of legal experience.
County Commission Chair Bryan Lober, who is an attorney, felt that the minimum experience level should be at least 10 years, with 15 years of experience preferred.
“It’s horrifying to me that someone could be a county attorney in an office like this with five years of experience,” Lober said.
But Commissioner Kristine Isnardi said setting a minimum of 10 years of experience “closes a door that may not need to be closed” on getting applicants.
Commissioner Curt Smith agreed with Isnardi, saying: “We don’t want to exclude anybody that could be a rock star,” but may not have 10 years of experience.
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A selection committee of Bentley, County Manager Frank Abbate and Human Resources Director Jerry Visco will screen applicants, then provide the County Commission with a list of who they feel are the 10 to 15 best applicants to consider, as well as a list of their three to five top recommendations. Abbate and Visco also are attorneys.
County Commissioner Curt Smith said he felt a list of 10 to 15 finalists is “way to big” for commissioners to consider.
“I think it’s too unwieldy,” Smith said. “I think five or six would be plenty.”
But Isnardi said she wanted to “see what was close” among members of the selection committee. She said considering only the committee’s top three “is a little tight for me. This is a pretty important position.”
Commissioners chose not to set a specific salary for the new county attorney. Bentley makes $180,952 a year.
Visco said he will devise a hiring matrix and scoring system to rate the applicants.
Lober said he doesn’t want a new county attorney who is “ultraconservative and risk-averse,” who consistently wants to settle lawsuits against the county, rather than fight them at trial, because they are “so liability-averse, we can’t fathom the chance of something going to trial.”
“We may not be the 800-pound gorilla, but we’re at least maybe a 600-pound gorilla,” Lober said. “I’d like someone that can come in and understand the fact that, when the situation calls for it, they need to have a spine.”
So he wants to see candidates who have trial experience.
The County Commission chose not to put a commissioner on the selection committee. But commissioners said they will lean on Lober’s experience as the only attorney on the County Commission, when they make a decision on Bentley’s replacement.
Bentley has been county attorney since April 2018, when she succeeded Scott Knox, who retired a month earlier after 24½ years in the job. Knox now is in private practice.
Bentley was assistant county attorney from 1986 to 2005, then became deputy county attorney.
Commissioners envision hiring Bentley’s successor two months before Bentley retires, and having them work together as a transition period for the new county attorney.
“If someone couldn’t pick it up in two months, then we’ve got the wrong person,” County Commission Vice Chair Rita Pritchett said.
Lober said, however, that he thought two months might not be enough of a transition period.
“It would scare the hell out of me not to have at least half a year” of transition, Lober said.
“I think we’re shortchanging ourselves by saving a few bucks,” by having both on the county payroll for only a short period of time, Lober said.
The county attorney and the county manager are the two county employees who county commissioners have the power to hire and fire.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY. His Political Spin column runs Sundays in FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or [email protected] Twitter: @bydaveberman
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