Lauren Ritchie: Mount Dora must rein in the lawyers | Commentary

Orlando Sentinel |

--First of two parts

Media of all sorts stood outside the Mount Dora Police Department in the sweltering heat , waiting for word of the conclusion of an investigation into the city's police chief, John O'Grady.

The city's attorney, its spokeswoman and its human resources director emerged to listen to the lawyer declare O'Grady had been dismissed. Then they turned on their high heels and clickity-clacked back into the air conditioning. The whole thing took maybe 30 seconds.

So much for "Someplace Special." More like "Someplace Snooty." Who in the world do these people think they are? Were they channeling Sarah Huckabee Sanders?

The dismissive way the city chose to terminate O'Grady -- for vague reasons nobody explained -- is yet another action in a string of bad, lawyer-driven decisions that are destroying Mount Dora's charm as an old-fashioned, real community.

Another recent unnecessarily-nasty misstep was to dismiss attorney James Homich from the Planning and Zoning Commission in May in a public and humiliating way. City Attorney Sherry Sutphen stated in a City Council meeting that she thought Homich had been out of line and urged the council to throw him off the board.

The Daily Commercial reported that only four of the council members had even listened to a recording of the meeting she cited, but they went along with her, 6-1. Seriously? Who is running this city?

The answer is the lawyer. This needs to stop.

When a new wave of council members got into office a few years ago, they dispensed with long-time city attorney Cliff Shepard and ran off a new city manager.

Council members didn't get the support they wanted when they tried to micro-manage city affairs, so they hired new people who would do what they were told.

The result? Things got expensive, and they stayed that way.

Today, city lawyer Sherry Sutphen is far too involved in city affairs, and her bills show it.

Shepard billed $132,500 in 2015, the last full year he was city attorney. In the last 10 months alone, Sutphen charged the city about $287,625.

If her billing stays on track, it will hit $345,150 by September. Ouch!

Consider that Lake County's three-lawyer, in-house team is paid roughly $330,000 annually and that Mount Dora's population is only 4% of Lake's 356,000 citizens.

How can this be?

Actually, Mount Dora's spending for legal advice already has topped $366,000 because the "investigator" of O'Grady's supposed misdeeds was -- you guessed it! -- yet another lawyer.

Here's one more comparison: One of a handful of Lake County lawyers certified to practice government law represents two Lake cities -- both bigger than Mount Dora -- and he said that he charges $60,000 to $84,000 annually.

Part of a city attorney's job is to warn off elected officials who are blundering into a treacherous legal swamp.

That didn't happen in the fiasco over what came to be called the "Starry Night House." The home at Old Highway 441 and West Sixth Avenue was painted in a style to resemble Dutch master Vincent van Gogh's famous painting "Starry Night."

The unusual paint scheme made national news last year because Mount Dora dug in its heels to force the homeowners, Nancy Nemhauser and her husband, Lubomir Jastrzebski, to repaint the house in a solid color.

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They fought back, filing a federal lawsuit with support from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, whose purpose is to defend cases involving individual and property rights, along with personal liberties. Anyone under the impression that these folks lose many cases? They do not, and they did not lose this one. Mount Dora paid and had to issue a very awkward public apology.

Perhaps, however, the single biggest reason to keep a city attorney caged until needed is because of the nature of the job. The words "ruthless" and "lawyer" go together so naturally that they're almost never separated. It is up to the mayor, council and city manager to inject humanity and common sense into city business.

That's what makes a city a real community, and it's where Mount Dora failed in handling O'Grady's case. We'll take a look at that situation in a later column.

Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com

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