BROOKSVILLE — Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai will continue to coordinate purchasing and contracts for Hernando County government, but on a shortened timeline.
The arrangement has been controversial, primarily because of questions raised about the consultant doing much of the work, Lisa Hammond.
To bring an end to the controversy, Nicolai wrote the commission a memo Tuesday saying she would end the agreement — which had been slated to run until Sept. 30 — in 60 days. She also included a list of work she could get done by mid January compared with what she could get done if she stayed until the end of June.
Ultimately, the commission agreed to extend the interlocal agreement until June 1.
Six months ago, Nicolai's office took over purchasing after County Administrator David Hamilton did away with the purchasing director's position while the director was serving a suspension.
Nicolai previously had outlined for the commission the laundry list of projects she, her office staff and Hammond have been doing to make the county's purchasing operation more efficient.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Jeff Stabins pushed to end the agreement with the clerk's office immediately, arguing that the county could save money by having its own purchasing manager. That would also save the county liability because of questions about Hammond's qualifications.
"As long as she remains employed, we're all subject to critical questions,'' he said. The commission should be "pulling the plug now,'' Stabins said.
But he got no support from other commissioners.
Hammond's position has been stirring controversy in the community for the past several months.
While Hammond had been working as a purchasing and contracts consultant, paid $55 per hour for several months, the scrutiny began after Nicolai hired Hammond full time at the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1. The annual salary for Hammond, who carried the title of strategic planning director, was $105,000.
While Hammond made the unusual move of releasing her resume to the media when she accepted the job — including information about a bankruptcy, foreclosure and a batch of speeding tickets — it was the educational credentials she listed that came back to haunt her, primarily her claim of a doctorate from a university that some consider a diploma mill.
Nicolai withdrew the job offer, keeping Hammond on as a consultant.
Residents continued to complain about the amount Hammond was being paid and that she was at the center of two of the highest-profile issues facing the county — the transition of control of the Hernando County Jail and the cancellation of the contract with the county's contractor on the Hernando Beach channel dredge. Both projects landed the county in legal hot water.
That is when then-Commissioner Rose Rocco first called for the county to reconsider allowing the clerk to oversee purchasing for the county. She argued against the interlocal agreement and was back at the microphone as a citizen Tuesday to make her points again.
She urged the commission to end the interlocal agreement and begin searching for someone with the right credentials to run purchasing and noted that "we need to follow policies and procedures'' to protect county residents.
Stabins was the sole vote against keeping the interlocal agreement until June 1.
Commission chairman John Druzbick said his concern was making sure that there was enough time to advertise and choose a new purchasing manager when the clerk steps away from the function, and Hamilton said it would be a top priority.
Nicolai agreed to the change in the duration of the agreement, although she voiced interest in ending the task as soon as possible.
"I just want this to be over,'' she said. "I've taken a lot of hits for it.''
She told the commission that she didn't like having to come before them and she was ready to "get out of your politics.''
Still, Nicolai said she felt her office has done the right thing and that Hammond has done a good job.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.