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Hernando County 'blackballing me' over stalled cleanup, contractor says

BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners, frustrated by the long delays and astronomical increases in costs to clean up a contaminated public works site in Brooksville, decided months ago to seek competitive proposals on the next phase of the project.

The project's consultant, however, never quite got the message.

George Foster, president of Creative Environmental Solutions, has complained to county officials in a flood of recent e-mails that he is being blackballed and deserves "better treatment.''

All of this is baffling, he indicates in one e-mail, because he and County Administrator David Hamilton made a handshake deal at a meeting in which he was assured he would be allowed to complete the cleanup phase.

In an e-mail last week to the county attorney about Foster's comment, Hamilton said no such meeting occurred and no handshake deal was ever struck.

On Friday, Foster backtracked from his claim, saying he couldn't recall when the meeting took place and that the handshake deal maybe wasn't really a deal at all. He characterized it as Hamilton assuring him that he would be the contractor on the cleanup.

This dustup is the latest controversy between Hernando County officials and the company that has been working on the project to clean up an old Department of Public Works compound since 2005.

Commissioners and others have been outraged that Foster's company, which was chosen in 2005 without going through a formal competitive request for proposals, similar to the bidding process, has turned a contract for $77,051 into more than $2 million worth of work, mostly through numerous changes in scope and cost.

Five years into the project, the cleanup of the contaminated soil has yet to begin.

At a County Commission meeting in mid December, county purchasing director Jim Gantt squared off against then-public works director Charles Mixson. Gantt pushed for seeking competitive proposals for the next round of work, while Mixson argued that changing contractors now would cause delays.

Having already heard plenty of complaints from constituents about Foster's arrangement with Hernando, commissioners decided that his latest change order request, No. 13, would be the last. Future work, including the actual cleanup of the site, would be competitive.

Foster was not at the regularly scheduled commission meeting to hear discussion of the topic, which was listed on the agenda.

Since then, much has changed within county government.

The two people Foster was used to dealing with, Mixson and assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton, no long work for the county. Hamilton fired Mixson and Sutton quit.

Foster has been in contact with county officials via e-mail. In one, assistant county attorney Erica Moore noted that if he added anything to the scope of his work, it had to be approved.

"Perhaps you were used to a different procedure under the prior DPW administration or perhaps you are confused as to the long standing purchasing procedure, but typically new work outside existing contracts must be approved by the county,'' she wrote.

He responded on Feb. 8, questioning the tone of Moore's inquiry.

Foster wrote more than two pages, at times using capital letters to emphasize his points. He wrote that "the kicker'' was that county officials had already recommended to Hamilton that Foster be allowed to complete the entire non-bid project.

"He (Hamilton) agreed, shook my hand and said it was so,'' Foster wrote.

Now, Moore, Gantt and Hamilton have changed direction, he noted. "I'm sure you all have your reasons, but I think you owe me the courtesy of an explanation.''

He argues that seeking proposals from other firms for the cleanup would not be wise. Having a new company come up to speed on Foster's assessments will cost Hernando "a bucket load of money,'' he said, and would be like "cutting off your nose to spite your face.''

Two days later, Foster e-mailed county commissioners asking for their help.

"Before this e-mail was written I learned that the interim DPW director (Susan Goebel) is telling staff not to use my firm for any projects. She doesn't know me from Adam so she's been given this direction from above,'' he wrote.

Foster goes on to say that he has been a resident of the county for 52 years and lists his civic and service history in the community.

"I deserve better treatment,'' he wrote. He asked for commissioners to step in to intervene and notes, "I really hope you will agree that blackballing me is outlandish.''

Foster said Friday that no commissioner has intervened on his behalf.

Goebel responded in an e-mail the following day that the concerns about Creative Environmental Solutions were "not personal.''

She noted that Foster's company was not on the original list of recommended consultants that the state gave the county. "I believe it is in the county's best interest to proceed with the request for qualifications process to obtain a consultant to perform the clean-up,'' she wrote.

Foster said that when the county asks for proposals he intends to submit one and he hopes he get fair consideration.

He said he sent the e-mails out of frustration and believes he is owed an explanation for being turned away from the project just as the cleanup is starting.

"I understand that public perception is important and all of that sort of thing and some think it's advantageous to start fresh with a new DPW director and a new contractor,'' Foster said. "I just think that's short-sighted.''

Reach Barbara Behrendt at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County 'blackballing me' over stalled cleanup, contractor says 02/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 9:29pm]
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