The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council entered contract negotiations Tuesday with two firms that responded to requests for proposals for special magistrate code hearing services.
The council heard presentations from private-practice lawyer Paul Nicoletti and attorney Keith Davis of Corbett, White, Davis & Ashton. Another respondent, Gary Brandenburg of Brandenburg & Associates, did not attend the meeting.
Nicoletti, a member of the Florida Bar since 1983, was in private practice for almost 20 years before becoming city attorney in Stuart.
“During that time I’ve been in small firms and larger firms, but I’ve always had municipal clients,” he said, adding that he has been doing special magistrate work since 2001 as part of his practice, including the Town of Lake Park, the City of Jupiter and the Village of Palm Springs.
Nicoletti said he started off as a city manager before going to law school.
“Even as a magistrate, I’ve had people appear before me and they have very practical problems,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just the grass got too tall, but why did it get too tall?”
Nicoletti said he tries to fashion practical ways for respondents to solve their difficulties.
“Sometimes it is the letter of the law,” he said. “Sometimes if it says the grass has to be 8 inches, then it has got to be done. At the same time there is latitude.”
Nicoletti has been board-certified in local governmental law since 1996, the first year that board certification was offered by the Florida Bar.
He added that he has tried environmental cases, especially in Martin County.
“Driving around before the meeting tonight, I got a chance to look at some of the beauty of your community,” he said. “My guess is that you all are concerned about the environment as well.”
Councilman Todd McLendon asked Nicoletti how he would deal with conflicting language in the Uniform Land Development Code, explaining that the town is in the process of cleaning up its ULDC, and Nicoletti said he tries to follow the most recent iteration of the code, or reach a compromise between the two versions.
Vice Mayor Tom Goltzené asked Nicoletti about his familiarity with the Freedom to Farm Act, and Nicoletti said he had some experience in Martin County, including livestock and building construction without permits. He added that he has a home in Palatka where his neighbors are farmers. “I don’t farm, I garden,” he said.
Davis, the managing shareholder of Corbett, White, Davis & Ashton, said that firm has existed since the 1980s. He has been with the firm for 14 years and is certified in local government law.
Prior to that he was an assistant state attorney for almost 10 years. He grew up in the Jupiter/Tequesta area.
He said that his firm is small, without a lot of overhead. “I do have a partner, Jennifer Ashton, and we have an associate attorney as well, so there’s backup and support at my disposal,” he said.
He said his work is only legal service to municipalities and special districts.
“We don’t represent private individuals against governments,” he said. “You would never see me or my firm representing a respondent in a code enforcement case, or representing a developer.”
Davis’s firm currently provides magistrate services for six municipalities, including the City of West Palm Beach, the Town of Juno Beach and the Town of Ocean Ridge, as well as the Palm Beach County League of Cities and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.
“We’re very well-versed in municipal government work,” he said. “We know it from the magistrate’s side and from the local government side. We understand how it impacts your residents, and we know the role of being fair and impartial, as well as standing on this side of the dais and prosecuting the cases.”
His firm also trains code enforcement officers.
“We will train our code enforcement officers in towns that we are general counsel for,” he said. “We’ve written procedural manuals for code enforcement for our cities to keep them current and updated with the state of the law.”
By virtue of the fact that they train and write manuals, Davis said his firm does well in seeing contested cases through the system.
“We understand the process extremely well,” he said. “Our orders have been challenged by respondents. We have successfully defended them all the way through the Florida Supreme Court.”
Davis pointed out that his firm had quoted the lowest rate for the service, and that their office is nearby, which gives them closer access and backup to emergency enforcement if it becomes necessary.
McLendon asked Davis about his familiarity with the Freedom to Farm Act, and he said he was aware of it but not prepared to have a discussion about it because the municipalities they represent do not have agricultural areas.
McLendon recommended they score the three, and he ranked Nicoletti first, with Davis second and Brandenburg third.
Councilman Ron Jarriel favored Davis because the firm is nearby, offered the lowest rate and had two potential magistrates on board. “If one can’t make it, the other can,” Jarriel said.
Goltzené said one way to solve the issue might be to have a magistrate and a backup magistrate.
Mayor Dave Browning said both firms had made good presentations. “I am in agreement with Ron from the standpoint of location and travel,” Browning said. “It is kind of a toss-up to me.”
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said the council could use both on a rotating basis, and McLendon made a motion to contract Nicoletti with Davis as backup and rotate every month between them. That motion carried 4-0 with Councilman Ryan Liang absent.