County attorney earns high marks in annual evaluation

Commissioner Detert expresses frustration, though, with ‘glacial speed’ of Office of County Attorney on some issues

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

As in years past, Sarasota County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh received generally high marks from the county commissioners during their annual evaluation of him.

However, in public comments during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 24, Chair Nancy Detert did voice frustration with what she called the “glacial speed” at which DeMarsh and his staff handle some issues.

Before her 2016 election to the commission, she indicated, she had grown accustomed to seeing matters handled much more quickly. She served in both the Florida House and Senate before term limits necessitated her leaving the Legislature.

“Some things, I think, take an inordinate amount of time,” Detert told DeMarsh. “I just see kind of a little bit of a lackadaisical attitude there. … It’s just how you care to work.”

She would think that a matter that could be handled relatively quickly would take precedence over one that was more time-consuming, Detert added.

Nonetheless, she continued, “You personally are always responsive to us. … You kept us from stepping on any landmines [over the past year], and I think that’s your top priority.”

This is the only written comment Commissioner Nancy Detert included on her evaluation form for County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The only other criticism expressed by a commissioner came from Charles Hines. As an attorney himself, Hines explained, “I’m very interested in what’s going on in the middle [of cases],” whereas the Office of the County Attorney generally just reports on filing of cases against the county and resolution of cases, Hines added. At times, Hines continued, he has pushed for “shade meetings,” as allowed under the state Sunshine Law, for a local government body to discuss certain aspects of litigation with their attorneys. Yet, DeMarsh routinely argues against such sessions, Hines pointed out.

“Sometimes, you can win in court, but you can lose the battle in public,” Hines said. “As policymakers, we need to be aware of that.”

Still, Hines told DeMarsh, “You do a great job.” And, with several employees in the Office of the County Attorney having retired in recent months, Hines added, “You’ve made some good hires …”

Commissioner Alan Maio talked of having known DeMarsh about 25 years. “Steve is always there; gives me valuable legal insight,” Maio said. “He does everything that he can to protect us legally.”

Having dealt with many attorneys on a professional basis through the years, Commissioner Michael Moran added, he had found they generally are of two types: deal makers and deal breakers. “I’ve always felt you were a deal maker, trying to make things happen,” he told DeMarsh. “I think you just do a wonderful job [representing the board].”

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said he “routinely receives compliments regarding the professionalism [of the county attorneys].” He told DeMarsh, “I think you probably have one of the best teams out there for professionalism.”

Caragiulo also cited the courtesy and affability of the members of DeMarsh’s staff, “and how responsive they are, which is probably, to me, the most important thing.”

A memo provided to the County Commission in advance of its Oct. 24 meeting includes details about cases handled by the Office of the County Attorney over the past year. This is a sampling of them. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I hear your positive comments and your criticisms,” DeMarsh replied, “and we’ll work on the matters we can address.”

He added, “It’s a fast-paced environment with multiple objectives that you wish to achieve in short periods of time.” However, he said, it is his job to figure out the commission’s policy direction and implement it.

The evaluation form the commissioners marked had a range of overall performance ratings, from “Unsatisfactory” to “Excellent.” Detert and Hines marked “Above Average” for DeMarsh, while Caragiulo, Maio and Moran marked “Excellent.”

As called for in DeMarsh’s contract, the board members voted formally — and unanimously — to approve awarding him a 3% raise, based on their evaluations. In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, county spokeswoman Ashley Lusby reported that, prior to the approval of the increase, DeMarsh’s salary was $237,681.60.

DeMarsh joined the Office of the County Attorney in 1992 and was appointed county attorney on Oct. 26, 2004, according to his bio on the county website.