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Hernando public works chief is punished

BROOKSVILLE — Stinging from a series of high-profile controversies and a history of unfinished projects and failed oversight, County Administrator David Hamilton on Friday suspended public works director Charles Mixson without pay for two weeks.

In addition, Mixson will return to a probationary period during which he must meet weekly with county administration and accomplish a series of tasks.

"Please be advised that any further infractions or any failure to comply with the terms of your discipline will result in your immediate termination,'' Hamilton wrote. "This is your last chance to keep your job.''

Mixson, who has been with the county since July 1986 and makes $116,792 a year, could not be reached Friday.

In a four-page disciplinary memo Hamilton handed to Mixson on Friday afternoon, Hamilton details the reasons why "recent events have convinced us that you have not been adequately performing your duties as director of the Department of Public Works/Engineering.''

The catalyst for the discipline was recent revelations about Mixson's former pavement management coordinator, Bill Busch. After Busch retired in January, Mixson brought him back to work as a contract employee. But Mixson says he didn't know that while Busch was working for the county, he was also working for KMS & Associates, a company that does business with the county.

The arrangement, detailed in several stories by the St. Petersburg Times, is the subject of a criminal investigation.

"Your failure to detect this conflict of interest has subjected the county to a criminal investigation and to very negative media attention,'' Hamilton wrote in Mixson's disciplinary memo.

He also cites another controversy, in which the Sheriff's Office investigated whether employees had been accepting gifts and gratuities in exchange for free dirt from maintenance projects.

Hamilton notes that Mixson has failed to clean up contamination at the former Public Works Department site in Brooksville, even though as far back as 2002 his boss ordered him to provide a "game plan'' to accomplish the task.

Mixson also failed, Hamilton said, to adequately supervise work to accomplish the long-awaited dredging of the Hernando Beach channel, putting funding in jeopardy.

The public works director is also criticized for failures in basic management functions such as providing data to document his decisions and failing to document employee discipline.

The memo cites an incident in which an employee was recently terminated for making obscene phone calls, yet no documentation of prior disciplinary action was found.

Hamilton also takes Mixson to task for "jeopardizing the careers of your high-level subordinates'' by failing to provide leadership. He specifically mentions assistant public works director Gregg Sutton, who has been the point person handling the languishing dredge project and the contamination cleanup.

"Neither project is near completion to the detriment of Mr. Sutton's professional reputation,'' Hamilton wrote. "As the department director, you were responsible for Mr. Sutton's success.''

Hamilton goes on to cite numerous references in past evaluations in which Mixson's bosses called his performance "mediocre'' and criticized his failure to hold his staff accountable.

To keep his job, Hamilton said, Mixson must create time lines for both the contamination cleanup and the dredge project.

"Infinity is not acceptable,'' Hamilton said Friday.

Mixson will also have to make his department's operations "fully transparent to the public, the media and the board.'' And he will have to provide a reorganization plan for his department that ensures he is "actively managing'' its activities.

Hamilton agreed to weekly meetings with Mixson to keep him on track.

"I still remain committed to the success of Charles and the success of the Department of Public Works and Hernando County,'' Hamilton said. "When the staff looks good, we all look good. When the staff looks bad, we all look bad.''

While the administrator is holding Mixson accountable for his failures — the suspension will cost Mixson $4,492 in pay — he also blames the revolving door of county administrators for the problems.

While evaluations reflected Mixson's shortcomings, by the time a second year came around for an administrator to call him on his failure to meet goals, someone else was sitting in the administrator's chair.

"That's going to change because I have a plan and I've made a commitment that I'm going to stay,'' provided that the County Commission's performance expectations are met, Hamilton said.

Sutton will be in charge during Mixson's suspension. Hamilton said Sutton owned up to his own lack of judgment in the Busch situation because he was his direct supervisor. Sutton said he would face whatever discipline Hamilton wanted to mete out, but Hamilton declined.

"The highest level of responsibility lies at the highest level of authority,'' he said. "Management is more than having the big office and the big check. It comes with a great deal of responsibility. You don't punish the rank and file for bad management.''

Sutton has a more important role to play, Hamilton said.

"He needs to hold the organization together and, in partnership with Charles, ensure that this never happens again,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando public works chief is punished 08/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 2:20pm]

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