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Column | Howard Troxler

Lots of politicians, not enough accountants

What keeps Buddy Johnson from happening again?

I don't mean Buddy Johnson the individual, the guy who just got kicked out by the voters of Hillsborough County as their elections supervisor. Seems unlikely he'll be back.

I mean Buddy Johnson, the institutional disaster — an independently elected official who messed up time after time, then stuck the taxpayers with unpaid bills and a mysterious $2.3-million overrun.

I bet you that we keep hearing more about what Buddy did in office. In fact, there's another story about it in the paper today.

What keeps all that from happening again?

Here is one of the quirks of Florida democracy. At the county level, we split power between all kinds of folks. It is a tradition that dates to the 1800s and the era of Andrew Jackson.

In the typical Florida county, there's a county commission to run the overall show, sure. But there's also:

A sheriff.

A property appraiser.

A tax collector.

A clerk of court.

An elections supervisor.

There's good reason for it, too. I wouldn't want the same person (1) setting my property value (2) collecting my taxes (3) spending the money and (4) counting his own votes.

In Hillsborough's case, there seems to be a pretty good crop in office now. On the other hand, I don't know if it's enough to say that.

Here's a sentence from a news story about Johnson that ran in late 2007:

Johnson took over payroll and finances for his office from the clerk of the circuit court earlier this year, with his office promising the taxpayers it wouldn't cost any more money.

That is an awfully important sentence. It ought to set off a big flashing red light and a loud siren. It is the key to the whole caper, as it were.

I didn't even know Johnson could do such a thing.

But Pat Frank, the Hillsborough clerk, told me Wednesday she has final say only over the checks written by the County Commission. Does the county have the legal authority to write it? Now and then, she kicks one back.

But as for the sheriff, tax collector and all those folks — no Pat Frank looking over the checkbook.

"I don't have that authority," she told me. "I couldn't decide on my own that, say, the sheriff shouldn't buy another helicopter." She's only able to audit another agency if the commission requests it.

Frank said constitutional officers answer in other ways. First, of course, they are answerable to the voters. But each agency also goes through an annual, external audit.

That's nice. But an annual audit has its limits. It can tell you the cows are gone, but not while the barn door is open.

I asked Frank: How come your office was doing Buddy's finances at all, then?

"It was done forever, as far as I know," she said. It was just custom. (New Supervisor Phyllis Busansky is returning these functions to the clerk, Frank said.)

Auditors now are trying to sort out Johnson's doings. It's hard, considering they are working with stacks of paper records held together with rubber bands. Like I said, I bet they'll find more surprises.

But under Florida's system, this is the price we pay for Jacksonian democracy and divided power.

What, indeed, keeps a Buddy Johnson from happening again? Nothing.

Lots of politicians, not enough accountants 01/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 7:50am]
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