Outside the corridors of City Hall, Cindy Laquidara is virtually unknown, but she is arguably one of the most powerful and among the best-paid women in Jacksonville, making a little more than $200,000 a year.
As the 13th general counsel for the consolidated city of Jacksonville, Laquidara is the attorney for 32 elected officials, 30 boards and commissions, and six independent agencies.
Her opinions and legal rulings affect the City Council, the mayor’s office, the supervisor of elections, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the clerk of courts, the property appraiser and the tax collector. Her domain also includes the School Board, the JEA, and the city’s housing, aviation, transportation and port authorities.
“It is just one corporate entity, so you can’t have the right fist fighting with the left fist at taxpayer expense,” Laquidara said.
Her passion is working in the courtroom, and she handles many of the cases in federal court.
“I just really love trying cases. I like to do it myself. I don’t like sharing,” she said.
Some of her recent actions, including helping negotiate the pension agreement between the city and police and firefighters, have raised the hackles of some City Council members. While they lack the authority to fire her, some have asked her to resign or for Mayor Alvin Brown to fire her. Neither is likely to happen.
Councilman Matt Schellenberg introduced a five-page resolution outlining complaints against Laquidara, including her willingness to “address the wishes of the executive branch at the expense of the legitimate interests and concerns of the legislative branch.”
In May 2012, Councilwoman Kimberly Daniels authored a resolution seeking a “no confidence” vote on Laquidara. Daniels also complained that the lawyer was failing to balance her representation of both the mayor and the Council.
“I feel like we have a charter crisis. The general counsel, in my experience, just do what they want to do and [are] always leaning toward making excuses for the Mayor’s Office,” Daniels told The Florida Times-Union.
Much of the rancor stems from the City Council’s hiring an outside attorney to examine the pension agreement reached behind closed doors between the mayor’s office and the city’s police and firefighters unions. Laquidara helped negotiate the deal.
Laquidara did not want to discuss the pension deal or the lawsuit filed by the Times-Union alleging the city violated the Sunshine Law, since they’re both in litigation.
“Sometimes the client doesn’t understand that I don’t have a vested interest in the outcome,” she said. “It is my job to tender up something, and if someone finds it insufficient, it is OK. I don’t take that as a personal slam because they are elected to do their job. How can I question their decision when they were elected to make the call?”
The resolution also mentions the letter of default Laquidara sent to the Jaguars and later rescinded, causing embarrassment to the city. Her advice to the mayor — that he could accept privately paid travel because it benefitted the city and not him personally — has resulted in a Florida Ethics Commission complaint.
City Councilman Bill Bishop said he was troubled by her involvement in the pension negotiations.
“As the lead attorney for all of consolidated government and our highest legal authority under the charter, I believe she has a duty to stay out of direct involvement in what are likely to become politically contentious issues,” Bishop said.
In his resolution, Schellenberg, who did not return emails seeking comment, said Laquidara “has failed to adequately represent or provide representation of the City Government as a whole and the City Council in particular …”
Laquidara did not want to discuss the individual allegations in Schellenberg’s resolution.
“It’s the nature of the job. There are 32 elected officials I represent,” she said. “They are elected, and it’s a difficult thing to keep that many important officials happy.”
She said she doesn’t take the resolution personally.
“If you don’t have thick skin, it is not the job to take,” said Laquidara, who in July 2010 took over the post from Rick Mullaney, after serving 12 years as the city’s assistant general counsel. Mullaney declined to comment on Laquidara.
Brown recently reaffirmed his support for the 56-year-old Laquidara.
“Since 2010, Cindy has ably served the city of Jacksonville — executive branch, legislative branch, constitutional offices and independent authorities — as general counsel. I look forward to her continued service as the consolidated government’s chief attorney,” Brown said in a statement released June 14.
In an interview in her fourth-floor corner office in City Hall, located next to the mayor’s office, she said she doesn’t know what is behind some of those who oppose her, but said it will not affect her work.
“They don’t have to like me. I don’t have to like them. I just have to be sure I’m doing a very good job to the best of my ability, and the attorneys here are doing their best, too,” said Laquidara, who supervises a staff of 37 lawyers.
She draws high marks from her peers in the legal profession, being honored as 2010 Jacksonville Lawyer of the Year and 2005 Jacksonville Woman Lawyer of the Year.
Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Hank Coxe, who is a former president of The Florida Bar, said Laquidara is a good lawyer doing a good job.
“One talent of Cindy’s I admire, and it’s true of all very good lawyers, is the need to tell their clients what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.”
Because of the tension between the mayor’s office and the City Council, Coxe said “she has become the target.” He said she will survive and keep her job. “She is not political, so she will weather the storm,” Coxe said. “If she wasn’t in government service and I needed a lawyer, I would hire her in a heartbeat.”
Former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who served as general counsel from 1974-’76, also praised Laquidara for her work.
“Cindy Laquidara is a very highly regarded attorney with great respect among the legal community,” Shorstein said.
“The general counsel does not legislate. It functions somewhat like the Supreme Court of the city, its legal decision final until a court decides otherwise,” he said.
John Delaney, former mayor and now University of North Florida president, served two terms in the position of general counsel, from 1991-’92 and 1994-’95.
“A Jacksonville general counsel has to be careful that each client is getting unvarnished advice,” Delaney said.
The general counsel has two primary duties: “Don’t let your client get in trouble, and try to find a way to say yes,” Delaney said.
One of the knocks against Laquidara is that she is too cozy with Brown.
Traditionally, Delaney said, general counsels have been close to the mayors they serve, citing his relationship with Mayor Ed Austin and Dawson McQuaig’s close ties to Mayor Jake Godbold.
“There has always been tension in the city about the mayor and general counsel relationship,” he said.
Delaney called Laquidara “a brilliant lawyer and a good tactician.”
“Obviously, she has made some mistakes,” he said, adding that he also made mistakes when he held the post, including taking a plane ride with Herb Peyton for a meeting in Washington about the sale of Blount Island to the military.
“So many things are thrown at you,” he said. “Often the law doesn’t make much sense.”
“It is a difficult job, and there is an inherent tension,” he added.
Laquidara, the daughter of a Sicilian father and an Irish mother, graduated magna cum laude from Boston College Law School in 1982. She is board-certified in city, county and local government law in Florida and is licensed to practice law in her native state of Massachusetts, as well as in New York and Florida.
Laquidara, the twice-divorced mother of an 18-year-old son who just joined the Marines, has four brothers and two sisters and grew up wanting to be either a nun or a lawyer.
She admits she’s addicted to caffeine and coffee and has a bowl of chocolates on her desk. She lives with two cats, Tiger and Sophie — “the mangy cat.”
Several previous general counsels have sought elective office, including two who have been elected mayor, but that bug hasn’t bitten Laquidara.
“I don’t want to be the mayor. I don’t want to run for City Council. I don’t want to be supervisor of elections,” she said. “I like to practice law.”
Laquidara first stepped into the public spotlight in 1994 when she became the spokesperson for the family of Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher, whose plane was shot down over Iraq on the first night of the Gulf War in January 1991.
She would continue in that unpaid role for almost two decades, until Speicher’s body was returned from Iraq in 2009.
“He was alive for a long period of time,” she said. “It’s a heartbreak.”
Much of Laquidara’s work was behind the scenes with the Navy, the Pentagon and in the halls of Congress, trying to find out if Speicher was still alive and trying to secure his release.
She spoke with the media only when she said had a purpose to advance, turning down an interview request from CBS anchor Dan Rather because she said she had nothing to say. She said Rather, in an interview with Saddam Hussein, had not asked about Speicher and that had concerned her because he was still missing at the time.
After several years in private practice, she became chief deputy counsel and assumed her current position as general counsel in July 2010 after being appointed by Mayor John Peyton. When Rick Mullaney announced in 2010 that he was leaving as general counsel to run for mayor, City Council members and other elected and appointed officials lobbied for Peyton to appoint her.
In July 2011, Mayor Brown reappointed her to a four-year term.
Some members of the City Council have recently questioned whether her appointment was legal, since her reappointment had not gone through the charter selection committee process.
“There are those in the legal community that do not think she was legally reconfirmed,” said Councilman Bill Gulliford.
Laquidara said she was legally reconfirmed because she was a former general counsel. She said she hopes to get away from the rancor and continue her work for the city.
“I consider myself a very fortunate person. I have a good and interesting job. I have great clients. I work with neat people. I have great friends and family. The worst I can get in my job is a paper cut. How can I complain about that?” Laquidara asked.
“There is only one goal, and that is to do the best you can for the consolidated government.”