Surfside town attorney Lynn Dannheisser gets paid royally for her work representing the tiny hamlet just north of Miami Beach: $177,656 a year plus an automobile allowance, full benefits, and a pension. She's required to work only three days a week, and she's allowed to use her town hall office and staff for her private practice.
This past December, Young Israel of Bal Harbour -- a Jewish congregation that is actually based in Surfside -- filed a lawsuit against the town after the town commission voted no to make zoning amendments that would have allowed the group to establish a new synagogue on an 8,000-square-foot lot it had purchased for $1.5 million. Young Israel claimed this was a violation of its members' religious rights, and demanded $5 million in punitive damages.
This sounds like a job for that town attorney. Except Dannheissser opined that the case required a specialist in federal lawsuits. She "looked around for the most experienced litigator," she explained at a recent commission meeting. She officially recommended that the town hire Gerald Houlihan. The Coral Gables attorney and Dannheisser are, by her own public admission, "dating." Houlihan agreed to represent Surfside in the battle against the Jewish congregation for the low, low price of $250 an hour.
At the January 18 commission meeting, only one Surfside lawmaker, Marta Olchyk, objected to hiring an outside firm with a town attorney already on staff. She also roasted the boyfriend recommendation: "If I would have been in her position, I would have never done it," Olchyk said in chiding Dannheisser, "but of course, we're in different generations. I'm still very old-fashioned, and I would never want to have an appearance... of impropriety." (We've embedded video of the meeting, via Save Surfside, below.)
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Dannheisser's somewhat mind-blowing defense: that Surfside has already obtained the services of another law firm -- Weiss, Serota & Helfman -- and that she was once a law partner with Joe Serota. Dannheisser boasted that "because of those personal relationships, I have been able to request that the attorneys cut their legal fees from $500 an hour to $250 per hour." That, she claimed, is "the benefit of those relationships."