County Attorney Garth Coller made a passing comment during a recent Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting that he would be retiring soon. The official date set for Coller’s retirement is Sept. 1, 2021. During the October 13, 2020 meeting, the board considered an employment contract with Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben to assume Coller’s position.
Jouben’s starting annual salary will be $149,500, which represents a $12,532.00 (8%) reduction in the current salary for the County Attorney position-- according to county documentation. There will be a proportional deduction in associated benefits (FICA, retirement and workers comp). The county will contribute a 3% match of Jouben’s salary to deferred compensation, whereas Coller receives a 5% match.
The board voted unanimously to amend severance clauses in the contract, with which Jouben agreed.
Terms of the contract met with disagreement regarding severance clauses. As currently written, if Jouben is terminated, he is to receive 20 weeks or 5 months of severance pay. Commissioner John Allocco also pointed out that language seemed to be absent from the contract that would allow severance pay at the natural end of the contract if the board decided to not renew.
“Mr. Jouben is going to do a great job, and we're going to pay him to do a great job. But I have a problem with paying him to not be here… We're paying 20 weeks if we fire him. I'd like to see that shortened.” Referring to the language in the contract, Allocco went on to say, “So when we get to the end of the four-year term, I believe if we decide to go in a different direction, we're still paying him 20 weeks. If we've completed a contract why would we pay severance in that situation and then also?”
Coller answered that Florida state statutes dictate that 20 weeks is the maximum a county attorney can be offered in severance. This interval was actually decreased during Coller’s tenure. He went on to caution the current board that members will change over a county attorney’s career. “I’ve seen many ‘knights of dark knives’ come up in administrators and county attorneys statewide were absolutely blindsided. You get no notice whatsoever ... all of the sudden, you're on the street.”
Jouben approached the board to begin negotiations. Allocco said, “Three months is reasonable, five months seems a little excessive.” He did go on to say that in subsequent contracts, the severance interval may increase, but he would like to see a 13-week severance clause in the initial contract.
“Well since I'm not planning to get fired. I think I have no real problem,” Jouben remarked, “If that's what seals the deal, we get it done. Then I would ask for a motion to make that an interlineal amendment to the draft contract. I'll make it, sign it, and be done.”
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb made the motion to amend the severance intervals to 13 weeks, and to negate language that stipulates severance be paid upon completion of the contract.
In welcoming Jouben into his new position, the commissioners expressed respect and excitement in working with him. Allocco expressed his respect for Jouben as an attorney. “When I first came on this board, you were a bulldog! … I realize you will fill the role that you're given and that says that you're really good at what you do and I'm glad to have you onboard and I look forward to you filling (Coller’s) shoes in the future.” He added, “I'm looking forward to an aggressive board that's going to look for what's best for our taxpayers in this county.”
Commissioner Steve Champion added, “I know he's going to do a fabulous job, you're not going to have to worry about 13 weeks because you're going to be here till you retire. Unless you choose otherwise.”
Pleased that the short negotiation was amenable to Jouben, Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said, “I look forward to seeing you here for a very very long time. Glad to have you.”
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said to Jouben, “Jon, we got along for the last ten years… Looking forward to working with you.”
County Administrator Jeff Rogers added, “I look forward to working with Mr. Jouben. He’s an outstanding attorney and it's going to be a great continued coordination between the administrative office and attorney's office.”
To his successor, Coller offered words of advice regarding his transition from an adversarial role to that of being a board advocate; “You're going to have to talk in very plain language and (the board) is not going to want you to talk more than you need to. I can tell you that is a golden rule and it helps a lot to ‘stay out of it’ when you can. It's terribly difficult to bite your tongue when you know people are walking into quicksand, but it's still often best to do that and I think now's the time for you to become warm and fuzzy and pass the bulldog role on to God.”
Coller remarked that the “bulldog” role was expected of attorneys early in their careers, for even he was a “bulldog” once.
On life in the public eye, Coller said, “I don't do stupid things, especially in public.” He chuckled and added, “Maybe plenty of them privately.” You're in the goldfish bowl 24/7. People as you've seen with all of the various social platforms out there -- that being public is dumb idea, because people will jump on the most innocent statements and make you look awful. I have declined as a lot of you have asked me to accept friendships on various social media… I have declined. I play no social media role at all. I strongly suggest Jon follow that. Being public is not a good thing in this role.”
Mr. Jouben will assume the title of Interim County Attorney three months prior to Mr. Coller’s retirement.