STUART -- Two years ago when the Martin County Commission asked then Senior Assistant County Attorney Sarah Woods to take over permanently as county attorney upon the sudden departure of then County Attorney Michael Durham, she warned the Board it would be a short dance due to her rapidly approaching retirement date.
True to her word, Ms. Woods said her official goodbyes at the beginning of the Dec. 18 Commission meeting after County Administrator Taryn Kryzda, commissioners and other staff lauded the outgoing attorney for 17 years of public service to Martin County.
The audience gave the retiring county attorney a standing ovation as the county administrator presented her a keepsake memento box in recognition of her Dec. 31 retirement date.
“Here comes the legal team, so now it’s no longer a surprise for Ms. Woods,” Ms. Kryzda said as the county attorney’s entire staff entered the chambers to participate. “Rather than a plaque, we thought we’d get her this little trinket box that she can do whatever she wishes with it. It just says total years of service 2001 to 2018, and she was our county attorney from 2017 and 2018 presented on the occasion of your retirement.”
Although the county administrator emphasized that neither she nor Ms. Woods were “criers” her voice broke slightly as she described her long-term association with the attorney, whom she said spent half of her 36-year legal career in Martin County.
“This is hard for me because Sarah’s been by my side,” Ms. Kryzda said. “She’s been someone that I’ve been able to confide in: We’ve raised our kids together, and we’ve solved issues not only relative to Martin County but everything going on in the county, so I appreciate her dedication to this community.”
Ms. Woods addressed the Commission and the audience, emphasizing how much she’d enjoying working for the county.
“Seventeen years ago I joined the Martin County team, and it quickly became apparent what a special workplace this is because of the quality, professionalism and dedication of the employees,” she said. “Martin County has a deep and genuine culture of caring. I’ve enjoyed working with all of the departments and staff, and of course the county attorney’s office will always have a special place in my heart. I’m grateful to be part of something that makes saying goodbye so hard. These meaningful relationships and special memories are deeply ingrained, and they’ll always be a part of me.”
Senior Assistant County Attorney Krista Storey then detailed her lengthy association with her boss, stretching back to the early 1980s.
“Not to date or age Sarah and I, but we started our careers together in the St. Lucie County Attorney’s Office,” she said. “Sarah joined in ’83 and I joined in ’84, and I talk about now when we were baby lawyers and we served under Dan Harrell who took a chance on both of us as women lawyers. About three months after I was hired, he resigned the position and Sarah -- this is actually her second stint as a county attorney -- was briefly the St. Lucie County attorney for a few months. So we date back all those years and raised our kids together: She’s been a colleague, she’s been my boss and she’s been my friend.”
Assistant County Administrator Don Donaldson then emphasized that he’d worked closely with Ms. Woods ever since he took over the Engineering Department in 1988.
“There has been no county attorney that I’ve worked for that’s worked harder in supporting our departments and solving problems for our county,” he said as he addressed Ms. Woods directly. “I’m most grateful for your leadership and what you’ve done for us.”
Commissioner Doug Smith then took his own jaunt down memory lane, crediting former county attorney Steve Fry with making a wise choice in hiring the outgoing attorney away from St. Lucie County.
“I remember when Steve hired you, and I didn’t really understand why and what was going on, just a new attorney showed up and that was great,” he said. “But I didn’t know Sarah and her talent and her ability, but what always amazed me about great county attorneys or great administrators is their ability to hire great people. So Steve pulled off one of the best hires I think we could have ever had.”
Commissioner Smith admitted that the county put Ms. Woods in the hot seat when the Commission appointed her as county attorney in late 2016.
“When we put Sarah in the seat, we said do everything you can possibly do to stop the bleeding and get us out of the litigation that we’re in,” he added. “Two of the largest and most difficult pieces of litigation I think were very, very expensive -- Lake Point and All Aboard Florida. To her credit, Sarah marched us through that, got us through it and resolved both of those before the end of her tenure. The county thanks you, our Finance Department probably thanks you and me personally.”
Chairman Ed Ciampi, who said he first met Ms. Woods during his earlier stint as a county commissioner several years ago, concurred with that assessment.
“We were really asking a tremendous amount of you,” he said, “but we could not have made a better choice You are steady, your are thoughtful and you are professional. That leadership not only reassured all of your staff but all of our staff and also the Commission that it would work out. My only disappointment is that we didn’t have you long enough.”
Commissioner Ciampi emphasized that Ms. Woods “had no choice but to retire,” and Ms. Kryzda explained later on during the discussion on the new attorney search that the outgoing county attorney found herself constrained by the Florida Retirement System.
“There is a process whereby you enter what we call DROP -- or Deferred Retirement Option Plan -- and once you enter that, you only have a five-year window and you must retire at the end of those five years,” she said. “Ms. Woods has been a participant in that program, and unfortunately her retirement is required by the end of this year.”
Ms. Kryzda explained that she had already met with the executive director the Florida Association of Counties who suggested using one of that organization’s attorney services rather than paying a more costly municipal headhunter to find a new county attorney.
“She let us know that the attorneys organization would take on working with us in the recruitment process for a nominal fee, about $5,000,” she added. “I feel like between utilizing FACA and our HR staff we would be able to do the advertising and recruiting and go through that process in-house rather than paying a recruitment firm, which usually run from $25,000 to $40,000.”
Commissioner Sarah Heard said her only requirement would be that the applicants have Florida municipal government experience and hopefully certification in that area, which the rest of the Board agreed with. They then voted unanimously to keep the search process in-house utilizing the assistance of the FAC attorneys. The Commission also voted unanimously to appoint Ms. Storey as acting attorney beginning Jan. 1, 2019.