Thursday, April 19, 2018
News Roundup

Hillsborough construction official quits after inquiry finds he wrongly helped fiancee's project

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's top construction permitting official resigned abruptly this week after an internal investigation found he improperly intervened in a development proposal submitted by his fiancee.

Dave Ford, managing director for the county's Center for Development Services and well known to people who work in the construction industry, submitted his resignation Tuesday, with his last day being at the end of the week.

An administrative investigation found that Ford, 60, acted in a way that improperly sped up review of a conceptual residential development plan submitted by his fiancee, Heather Wertz. She is a project manager for Hamilton Engineering & Surveying Inc. of Tampa, where Ford worked before returning to county government last year.

By intervening in the project, the investigation concludes, Ford may have violated a state statute that prohibits public employees from using their position to create a special benefit for someone else, in this case Wertz.

"He's in a supervisory position, a high-level position in the organization as a director," said Helene Marks, chief administrative officer for the county. "He influenced a decision for the benefit of someone else and altered the process."

Attempts to reach Ford for comment were unsuccessful. In excerpts from an interview contained in the investigative report, he acknowledged he should not have involved himself in the matter because of the relationship with Wertz and his former employer.

But he said he never told anyone to do anything, rather simply offered his thoughts.

"I didn't give any kind of directive because it's not my place to give a directive," he said. "I was making a suggestion."

He said that was done in the spirit of helping someone who was seeking development approval from the county, a renewed emphasis in the office.

In an interview, Wertz said she does not believe Ford acted in a way that treated her any differently than anyone else. She said she feels the situation was blown out of proportion.

"I felt like Hamilton and myself were kind of put at a disadvantage, and I was very disappointed to learn of the investigation and the charges brought against Dave," she said. "I think that Dave acted in a manner that he would have acted with any other consultant that came in and asked some questions."

The county's development services center generally is divided into two sections. One handles the review of conceptual development site plans and subdivisions. The other oversees the issuing of building permits and inspections when stores or homes are actually ready to get built.

Ford oversaw the latter. He had worked for the county for 26 years when he left in 2005 for the private sector. He rejoined the county in July 2012, hired by Lucia Garsys, deputy county administrator for infrastructure and development services, to whom he reported. He earned $107,000 a year.

According to the investigative summary and Garsys, Wertz submitted a preliminary development proposal in April to develop a several-hundred home subdivision in the Riverview area. The application went to the part of the department that Ford did not supervise.

Staff raised concerns about aspects of the proposal, denying approval. Wertz addressed the concerns, but her clients also made changes to the original.

County staff said the changes were substantial enough that the application would need to start from scratch in the review process instead of picking up where the original analysis left off, which meant a time delay and new fees. Wertz sent an email to Ford on Oct. 24 of last year.

"Rick and Frank are telling me I have to start over," it read in part. "What do you think?"

Ford forwarded the email to one of the employees referenced by Wertz, Rick Cabrera.

"Rick, let's talk about this today," he wrote.

Ford would later say that the topic came up in passing. But Cabrera said he would have two meetings with Ford at his request, the second after Ford asked for copies of the original proposal and changes to it. Cabrera told the investigator that Ford directed him not to require Wertz to start over.

The next day, the other person mentioned in Wertz's email, Frank Breaux, sent her a message saying she would no longer have to reapply anew. Cabrera forwarded the email to Ford, who sent him a reply back saying, "Thank you."

Two days after the initial email exchange, Breaux recounted the experience to his boss, saying it had made him uncomfortable. His boss alerted Garsys.

Garsys said Ford has been a "very good" employee. She said after the investigation was completed, Ford was presented with options, including the possibility of being demoted. She said he chose to resign.

She agreed with Ford that there is a renewed emphasis on customer service, and helping people achieve what they want to do while following the rules.

"We want to get to a point where staff is helpful," Garsys said. "But they also have to understand that they're working within a regulatory, organizational and ethical framework. There are certain lines we can't step over."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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