Finalist to run Southwest Florida Water Management District sued two previous employers

Last month, 51 people applied for the job of leading the Southwest Florida Water Management District, including three assistants to the executive director who had just resigned.

But when the board members of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud chose two finalists, they skipped over those three veteran employees. Instead, they picked David E. Chardavoyne and Blake C. Guillory, two engineers who have no prior experience working in Florida government. Of the two, only Chardavoyne has any experience running a water agency.

But Chardavoyne also has a lot of experience with the court system.

He sued two of his previous employers for breach of contract. He left a third job, running a Texas utility, under an agreement that paid him $412,000 in exchange for a promise not to sue his employer. And a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against him and the Texas utility resulted in a $635,000 settlement.

Those lawsuits are all fair game for discussion, but they should not be a factor in his hiring, Chardavoyne said in an interview.

"Any seasoned senior executive who has a full career in terms of experience will run into lawsuits," he said. "It's part of what goes with being a senior executive."

Guillory, who has spent the past 20 years working as a consultant to Florida city and county governments and the three largest water management districts, said he's never been sued nor has he sued anyone else.

Chardavoyne said he sued two employers because "I just have a principle with contracts. If you negotiate and sign one, you are obliged and morally required to follow that contract."

Also, he said, with the first suit, "there was quite a bit of money involved — several hundred thousand dollars. If it was just $50,000, you'd say that was just one of those bumps in life." The case took three years to get to trial, and in the end he received only a year's salary, he said.

As for the racial discrimination suit against him at the San Antonio, Texas, utility, he said, that resulted from his reorganization of a dysfunctional utility that went from losing money to showing a profit.

"If you're a senior executive and you try to make those changes, then those things are going to happen," he said.

The settlement he worked out with the San Antonio utility stemmed from a new board chairman who wanted to hire his own person, Chardavoyne said. But the local newspaper gave a different account of his ouster.

"During his three-plus years, the utility reduced operations and maintenance expenses and debt service, resulting in a $75 million savings for ratepayers this year," the San Antonio Express-News reported when Chardavoyne left the job in 2008.

However, "tensions between (Chardavoyne) and board had been building, most recently when board members felt they weren't getting adequate answers from staffers about projected costs of water projects," the paper reported.

Swiftmud's board members didn't know about Chardavoyne's legal history before they picked their finalists, chairman Paul Senft said this week. They found out afterward.

"I'm sure it will be a topic of discussion in the next round of interviews," Senft said. The board will interview both men Monday, he said, and then is likely to vote Tuesday.

The executive job involves supervising more than 700 full-time staff members as well as overseeing the district's $280 million budget. Thanks to tax cut mandates from the governor and Legislature, it will also require laying off 30 of those employees and slicing 36 percent of the budget.

The last time the Swiftmud board picked an executive director was 2003, when it chose longtime employee Dave Moore. He quit in May.

Moore did not give a specific reason for his departure, but his resignation is part of a wave of change washing over the state's five water districts after Gov. Rick Scott said they all needed to get back to their "core missions." The executive directors of the South Florida Water Management District and the St. Johns River Water Management District also resigned or retired recently.

Moore's predecessor, E.D. "Sonny" Vergara, said that's the result of Scott's policies: "R and R (remove and replace) is the name of the game, the point of which is to place in control those who have bought into the concept that any form of regulation is bad for Florida business."

Given that policy, he said, picking outsiders to run the water agency is "a bad idea, but not surprising."

Moore's salary at the time of his resignation was $194,875. However, his replacement's pay will be far less. Scott on Wednesday ordered all five water districts to cap the executive director's salary at $165,000.

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Staff writer Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Finalist to run Southwest Florida Water Management District sued two previous employers 08/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 12:24am]

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