The Wellington Village Council adopted a policy last week to reimburse legal fees to village officials, advisory board members and employees who successfully defend against ethics complaints.
At a meeting Thursday, Sept. 24, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that the policy was proposed by staff because insurance coverage has been reduced to a reimbursement of 50 percent of the fees incurred upon the successful defense of an ethics claim.
“It would permit you to select your own attorney if you felt that you need to retain an attorney,” Cohen said. “It would require that you successfully defend or prevail in the ethics case.”
It would also require that the defendant provide notice to the village and exhaust any insurance that was available, plus provide coverage in the event that the official was exonerated on most of the charges but not all, she said.
“For example, if there were 10 charges levied and the official prevailed on eight of them, then the council would be authorized to reimburse at the level of 80 percent after exhaustion of any available insurance,” she said, explaining that she believed this was a good supplement to insurance in light of the reduction of the coverage.
“We also feel that, given the experience that some of our appointed and elected officials have had in defending these complaints, this would be of benefit,” she said. “We don’t want to chill the desire of people to serve in those positions, and we believe that it’s reasonable.”
The policy does not contain a limitation on the hourly rate.
“There are only a few attorneys around who do this type of work, and typically their rates are around $300 per hour,” she said, pointing out that the Leon County policy, which was a model for the village’s, caps the coverage at $250 per hour.
Councilman Matt Willhite asked whether the policy was retroactive and if there were any cases open currently, and Cohen answered no to both queries.
Willhite said that he did not want to stifle legitimate ethics complaints, but he did not think that it was fair to officials who are found not guilty to be financially obligated out of their own pocket for something that happened in the course of performing their duties.
“There was a change in the insurance last year,” he said. “They only cover 50 percent up to the maximum amount. I understand that, but it is incumbent upon the village to make sure that the people who are governing [can serve] without the fear of financial retaliation.”
Willhite said he hoped that the policy would discourage people from filing frivolous complaints if the reimbursement came out of tax money.
“I think this is a good policy,” he said. “I think that it’s equitable. I think it follows what other municipalities are doing in places, so I’m happy to support it.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said that she would feel more comfortable if it had a rate limit or ceiling. “A long case could be a major difference,” Gerwig said, asking whether there was a government rate that an attorney could be limited to.
Cohen said attorneys have different prices that they call government rates, so it really has no meaning.
“I just have a problem with it being an unlimited amount of money,” Gerwig said. “This could really change the cost significantly, depending on if somebody wanted to hire [celebrity attorney] Roy Black… it could change the cost to residents significantly. I’d like to see us have some kind of limitation.”
Councilman John McGovern asked whether fee limits are addressed, and Cohen said the policy does define reasonable attorneys’ rates as the customary rate charged in Palm Beach County for private, non-appointed attorneys.
“If you felt more comfortable, there is certainly nothing wrong with you putting an hourly cap on it,” Cohen said.
Gerwig said that could be problematic because an official could be left without an attorney if none are willing to work at that rate.
Cohen added that, ultimately, it is the council’s decision to authorize reimbursement. “There is nothing in here that mandates reimbursement,” she said. “It just permits reimbursement. The intent is that it will be reimbursed if there are reasonable fees.”
Mayor Bob Margolis asked Cohen to take a survey of attorneys that defend ethics complaints in the area. “There are not many attorneys in the State of Florida who will do this type of work,” he said.
Willhite made a motion to approve the policy, which carried 5-0.