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Ex public works director brings baggage to Brooksville council

Emory Pierce, who was fired last year as Brooksville’s public works director by city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha, won an uncontested seat on the City Council. He now has a vote on her continued employment.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Emory Pierce, who was fired last year as Brooksville’s public works director by city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha, won an uncontested seat on the City Council. He now has a vote on her continued employment.

BROOKSVILLE — Emory Pierce entered the world of Brooksville city politics through a side door.

As the deadline to file for November's City Council elections arrived June 18, Pierce was the only candidate for Seat 4. At the last minute, Mayor Lara Bradburn, who's in that post, jumped over to the seat left open when Richard Lewis decided not to seek re-election.

Like Bradburn, Pierce won a seat without any Brooksville voter having to cast a ballot in the nonpartisan race.

To many residents, the 63-year-old Pierce, who takes his seat in December, is an unknown quantity. He served as the city's public works director for nearly 13 years, but hardly made a ripple of noise.

All of that may be about to change.

Pierce was abruptly fired for insubordination last September by City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha. Now, he will be one of the five people who determine whether she keeps her job.

Pierce wouldn't speculate on how he might vote should the question of Norman-Vacha's continued employment come up.

"I would have to listen to all sides in order to make that judgment," he said.

Norman-Vacha couldn't be reached for comment.

Pierce said he originally chose to run against Bradburn because he thought she was politically vulnerable. Bradburn thought otherwise.

"I wasn't hoping for an opponent, but had it been me against Emory, I'm pretty certain I would have won," she said.

Though a political novice, Pierce said his decision to run wasn't based on retaliation against his former boss or anyone else. He remains close friends with many who work in City Hall.

"I want to stand for good, responsible government," Pierce said.

And that, he said, includes helping local businesses attract more visitors and working toward streamlining government services to better serve the public.

• • •

Until he was fired, Pierce got high marks on evaluations for job knowledge, reliability, initiative and adherence to policy and department rules.

However, on his final evaluation a few months before his firing, Norman-Vacha noted he needed to improve the quality of his work, saying that "little effort has been taken to move the department and its functions 'to the next level.' "

Pierce noted that his while his relationship with Norman-Vacha began on a positive note, he began to see it deteriorate as time went along. In a newspaper interview shortly after his firing, he characterized the city manager's decision as a "witch hunt."

Pierce said he had every intention of staying with the city until he retired. But his job ended Sept. 11, six days after Norman-Vacha placed him on leave for allowing unauthorized work to take place in the construction of the city's portion of the Good Neighbor Trail project.

Norman-Vacha said Pierce had prepared two different sets of construction plans for the joint Brooksville/Hernando County trail project — one set of which was not valid. One set of the plans called for installing a culvert and berm system that had not been permitted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Although Pierce said he acquired an exemption from Swiftmud for the work, a permit to build the berm/culvert system would have cost another $15,000 for a topographical survey and a water flow consultant. The permit was never sought or issued. It also would have put the project seriously behind schedule.

Pierce said he took some shortcuts that he was told were allowable under the exemption. Though he consulted with an agency inspector before installing an 18-inch culvert to solve a drainage issue, he didn't find out until later that it violated the permit exemption.

"Swiftmud was out there every day," he said. "They knew what we were doing. If we were in violation, they never made me aware of it."

While Pierce admits he made mistakes on the project, none, he believes, warranted his firing.

• • •

From the front room of his Darby Lane townhome next to the Brooksville Quarry Golf Course, Pierce said that while he was pleased that the last-minute turn of events this month put him in office, he was disappointed there weren't more City Council candidates.

"I think voters appreciate having more of a choice when it comes to who's running their city," he said. "They're looking for someone to bring some new ideas."

Pierce believes he has a few good ones.

Although he describes himself as a fiscal watchdog, he says he wants to see Brooksville progress as well. Among his greatest concerns, however, is the city reliance on consultants and outside attorneys to do what he considers in-house departmental tasks.

"It's gotten away from them," Pierce said. "If you have smart, qualified people on the staff, you shouldn't need so many outside opinions. I don't think they bring any answers that aren't already out there."

Pierce points to his own hiring in 1996 by then-City Manager Richard Anderson as proof. Anderson, he said, valued his public works director's role as a problem solver.

"I was expected to be hands-on," Pierce said.

As a licensed engineer, Pierce said he had the confidence and knowledge to be able communicate directly with developers and contractors in all phases of the city's construction contracts.

His tenure saw the completion of several large city projects, including major water, drainage and roadway improvements, as well as the construction of a $4.9 million sewage treatment plant on Cobb Road.

Pierce said that such a can-do attitude would work well in all departments, including Public Works, which is now being run by interim director Richard Radacky. Although Pierce acknowledges Radacky's experience as longtime utilities director for Hernando County government, he wishes the job had gone to someone with working engineering experience.

"Working with contractors requires you to be able to represent the city and understand every working phase of a project," Pierce said. "That type of experience is invaluable."

Since his dismissal, Pierce said, he has focused his time on more personal issues, including home improvements and devoting time to his wife, Alison, and their 4-year-old daughter, Alexis.

He's also looking for work.

"Let's just say the right situation that I'm looking for hasn't come along," Pierce said. "But I expect it will at some point. One thing for sure: I'm not ready to retire just yet."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

Ex public works director brings baggage to Brooksville council 06/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 1:12pm]
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