Vote on successor to Sarasota County attorney tabled until Jan. 29

With Stephen DeMarsh planning to leave county attorney’s post on March 31, Commissioner Maio proposes Deputy Attorney Elbrecht as new county attorney

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

Although Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio was ready on Jan. 15 to name a successor to retiring County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, an objection from Commissioner Nancy Detert and concurring concern raised by Commissioner Charles Hines will push back that vote until Jan. 29.

Maio had made a motion to name Deputy County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht as the new county attorney, and Commissioner Michael Moran had seconded it. Maio also noted that Deputy County Attorney Karl A. Senkow was interested in the position.

After Detert protested that no vote was indicated by the agenda for the Jan. 15 meeting, and after DeMarsh pointed out that the delay “is not a problem,” Maio and Moran agreed to wait two weeks before deciding on the next county attorney.

During his Jan. 15 report to his colleagues as the new board chair, Hines indicated that DeMarsh had met one-on-one with each commissioner to announce DeMarsh’s plans to step down from the position on March 31.

“Steve, congratulations on that, and thank you for all your great service to Sarasota County,” Hines told DeMarsh.

“It’s been a great pleasure to be in public service for Sarasota County for close to 27 years,” DeMarsh told the commissioners. “The County government is really an incredibly important institution and functions well. … When things are going well, that’s the time to step away.”

The county website says DeMarsh was appointed county attorney on Oct. 26, 2004.

DeMarsh did add on Jan. 15 that he was not certain he would characterize his decision as “retirement.” He said he had not decided yet what he would do after March 31.

Then he told the commissioners, “I believe that we have an Office of the County Attorney that includes tremendous attorneys and that an internal candidate … could well be selected to take the County Attorney’s Office forward from here.”

He further pointed out that, having lost two senior members of his staff in the past two years, he was able to “recruit very talented attorneys to come to the office. That gives me great optimism for the office, that there are good candidates out there” interested in public service.

“Please carefully look at internal selection,” DeMarsh continued, “because they know every person in the office. They know their capabilities. They have a good sense of where the office needs to go.” He added, “I’m available to help in the transition through the month of March.”

“Mr. DeMarsh was a professional and a gentleman by giving this [board] four months’ notice,” Maio said, noting that the announcement “took us all by surprise.”

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

“I see three incremental things before us,” Maio continued: accepting DeMarsh’s resignation, effective March 31; deciding on whether to search from outside the Office of the County Attorney for a successor, as well as internally; and naming that successor.

Even though he was prepared to make a motion regarding a new county attorney, Maio added, he was not sure whether his colleagues were at the same point. Nonetheless, Maio pointed out, “It seems like March 31 is a long way away. It is not. … There’s got to be time for transition …”

“I would say we need to start internally,” Detert responded, in terms of the search for a successor, but the board members should not limit themselves to that.

After the commissioners voted unanimously to accept DeMarsh’s decision to leave at the end of March, Maio then made a motion to begin an internal search for DeMarsh’s replacement. “There’s a very talented staff,” Maio added. “Only in very limited circumstances do we ever have outside counsel.”

A number of members of the Office of the County Attorney have tenures running for more than a decade, Maio noted.

“The bench is so deep here,” Commissioner Michael Moran said. “I see no reason to go outside for a search.”

The only concern he had, Commissioner Ziegler said, was that “I don’t want a sixth commissioner. … I don’t think that’s been the case with the current county attorney, in my understanding …”

Although he has had limited contact with the staff of the Office of the County Attorney, Ziegler added, “I’ve heard nothing but great things about [them].”

Commissioner Hines concurred with Ziegler about not hiring a county attorney who would be inclined to offer thoughts on policy or the budget. The role of the county attorney, Hines pointed out, is to make certain the commissioners work within the appropriate parameters on issues, so they do not make missteps that could lead to legal challenges. “Steve’s done a great job with that.”

Hines added, “The County Attorney’s Office is working well, and I don’t think that we need to disrupt that by bringing somebody in from the outside.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. File photo

At one point during the discussion, Detert asked for comments from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, as he will need to work closely with DeMarsh’s successor.

“As far as my opinion,” Lewis replied, “certainly, [I have worked with] the internal folks … over the past year and a half.” He called Elbrecht and Senkow “incredibly competent,” along with their colleagues in the Office of the County Attorney.

Even if the board ended up hiring a candidate from outside the current staff, Lewis continued, he would be able to work with that person.

“I would like your input before we have any kind of final approval,” Detert told Lewis.

A point of disagreement

After the commissioners voted unanimously to proceed with an internal search, Maio responded to another concern Ziegler had raised — that if the board hired either Elbrecht or Senkow as the new county attorney, the other might leave. He raised that question with each when he met with them individually, Maio said. “Both were unequivocal,” Maio continued, with each affirming his respect and affection for the other and expressing no desire to leave county government service.

Then Maio made his motion to name Elbrecht as DeMarsh’s successor.

Maio noted, especially, Elbrecht’s leadership during an April 2017 meeting between the Sarasota City Commission and the County Commission regarding a dispute over city leadership’s assertion that the county owed the city one more payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund. Elbrecht made the presentation that refuted the city’s argument.

Elbrecht has been involved in major litigation for the county, too, Maio noted, adding that he felt Elbrecht’s length of service to the county was another benefit.

The county website says Elbrecht joined the Office of the County Attorney in June 2005. It also notes, “He is admitted to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.”

“[He has] the gravitas to lead the very big Office of the County Attorney,” Maio added.

Commissioner Moran said he is looking for a successor who would provide “solid, unfiltered information” to the commissioners and all the legal variables regarding any issue under discussion.

Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

Moran, too, noted Elbrecht’s resume.

Then Detert voiced her objection to Maio’s motion. “I’m just very disturbed to have this sprung on us. … I’m not in a big rush.”
Detert also noted that she had asked both Elbrecht and Senkow for their resumes, and she had yet to receive them.

Finally, she said, “I think that it’s important” that the new county attorney be approved on a unanimous vote. If she had to vote that day, she added, her vote would be “No.”

“This needs to be a 5-0 vote,” Hines agreed with Detert.

Still, he said, “I have all the confidence in the world in Rick.” Senkow could be the No. 2 person in the Office of the County Attorney, Hines noted.

“If you need a little more time,” Hines told Detert, “I think that’s wise.”

Hines suggested the commissioners postpone the vote until their next regular set of meetings, adding that he could bring it up under his report on Jan. 29. Then, if Elbrecht does win full board support, Hines said, the commissioners could authorize Hines, as chair, to negotiate a contract with him.

The county administrator and the county attorney are the only two staff members who are County Commission employees, board members have explained in the past.

Maio agreed to amend his motion to table the vote until Jan. 29, and Moran concurred with that.

“The additional time is not a problem,” DeMarsh said.

The motion then passed on a 5-0 vote.