Mixson's tenure in Hernando County marked by errors, embarrassments

BROOKSVILLE — The beginning of the end for Charles Mixson came on Aug. 29, 2008.

On that day, County Administrator David Hamilton presented Mixson with a long list of problems that had erupted on his watch and another list of corrective actions.

And a warning: "This is your last chance to keep your job."

So last week's decision by Hamilton to fire Mixson as county engineer and public works director was not necessarily unexpected.

Even after multiple reprimands of Mixson, projects were hitting new snags and delays. Costs were adding up, and employee mistakes kept landing the county in the headlines.

A year ago, months after Mixson's August 2008 reprimand and 10-day suspension without pay, new problems with the Hernando Beach channel dredge popped up, and Hamilton gave Mixson a July 31, 2009, deadline to start the work or be fired.

Mixson made that deadline.

But more delays in the project, environmental concerns and a new cost overrun surfaced in recent weeks, pushing Mixson back to center stage. On Monday, Hamilton delivered a stinging memo to Mixson, asking for a formal accounting on the project.

Mixson's response — 234 pages — was delivered to Hamilton on Wednesday.

In it, Mixson explained how the dredge design wasn't working the way state environmental regulators wanted it to and that the regulators had changed the rules and set the time lines. He called conclusions by an assistant county attorney incorrect and defended his own handling of the project.

Hamilton fired him Thursday.

Hamilton's memo concludes that Mixson did not seem to be working for the taxpayers who pay his salary.

"It has become apparent that instead of critically examining requests for change orders, you have instead become an advocate and spokesperson for the contractors," Hamilton wrote, noting that Mixson was suggesting $600,000 more should be paid to complete a sea grass mitigation plan for the dredge.

"You represent the county, not the contractors," Hamilton told Mixson.

After firing Mixson, Hamilton said that the dredge would be done on time and within budget and that "we are confident that the actions taken today will facilitate reaching that goal."

Mixson did not return a phone call seeking comment.

County Commissioner Dave Russell said that state environmental permitting "is difficult at best, but we can't blame DEP for all of the send-backs. … The county has to accept some of the blame, and it was Charles' responsibility."

Hamilton "felt that time had run out," Russell said. "There were just too many problems, too much money."

• • •

While the Hernando Beach dredge has been the project for which Mixson has taken the most heat, there have been other instances in the last few years where he found himself having to explain why projects and employees had gone awry.

Three years ago, he answered for a scathing audit of his fleet management department. The manager was fired, and oversight for the department was taken away from him. Then last year, Mixson took over again. Shortly thereafter, new manager Jack Stepongzi quit after he was discovered getting kickbacks from a vendor.

A year earlier, another man working for Mixson on a contract basis, pavement manager Bill Busch, left his job after he was found to be selling a product the county was using in its pavement management.

Another employee, property manager Michael Silvey, lost his job after making obscene phone calls to two former co-workers. Mixson was criticized by Hamilton for previous undocumented discipline of the employee.

Hamilton also criticized Mixson for failing to be a "team player" and not providing the documentation needed by other county departments in order to support his decisions.

The news that public works employees were giving away county fill dirt for the price of meals and gifts from developers was another issue that riled Hamilton under Mixson's watch.

In another case late last month, Mixson tried to hire a vendor without insurance to do an archaeological survey in conjunction with the Spring Lake Highway federal stimulus road project. Mixson argued to the county's human resources director, Cheryl Marsden, the risk manager and an assistant county attorney that he didn't need insurance. The surveyor wouldn't be walking along the road; he would just be driving, Mixson said.

Afterward, Mixson sent an e-mail to Marsden saying that time was of the essence to avoid losing the federal money. "You do not get it," he wrote. "It's about time, not about thoroughness."

Hamilton has also cited the cleanup at the old public works compound in Brooksville as another of Mixson's failures. The project has been on the books for a dozen years, testing has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the cleanup has not yet begun.

Recently, while Hamilton was out of his office on furlough, Mixson routed a new request for an increase in the consultant's pay to the County Commission, but Hamilton pulled the item. He had previously said there would be no more increases.

In the end, the increase was granted. But the commission agreed that all additional work will be bid in the future.

Another aspect of the delay on the public works project has been a legal challenge by residents of the nearby Mitchell Heights community, but that was recently dismissed. Part of the residents' complaint was the way Mixson's department has managed the project.

The dredge also has its share of Mixson critics.

Lisa Bambauer, one of the residents who legally challenged the spoils site for the dredge, said she holds Mixson responsible for the poor handling, delays and money wasted on the project, but she believes others share the responsibility.

She and other Hernando Beach residents contend the original permit was worthless because the dewatering system for the spoils would not have worked. Acquiring the permit cost $1 million, and the county has since spent another $1 million.

"I work hard for the money that I give the county," Bambauer said, "and for somebody to squander it like it's found money on the street, that's very insulting to me."

• • •

Mixson, 60, earned an annual salary of $116,792 and an additional $32,298 annually in benefits. He began work for the county in July 1986.

County commissioners describe Mixson as a likable guy and a good engineer. Evaluations dating back to 1999, however, highlight other problems.

Former administrator Richard Radacky described Mixson's road and drainage operation as "weak, disorganized and poorly led" in 1999. The next administrator, Paul McIntosh, said his performance was "mediocre," and he expected Mixson to require more accountability from his people.

McIntosh repeated that criticism a year later and pushed for Mixson to "ensure that projects are completed in a timely manner."

"Clearly, we deserve better service in our Department of Public Works," Bambauer said. "It's just one failed project after another, and it's been going on for a long time."

"I believe that Charles is a fine engineer," Commissioner Jeff Stabins said. He added that he wished Mixson had stayed with that job rather than becoming a department director.

"That job required supervisory skills that were clearly lacking," Stabins said.

"I like Charles," said Commissioner Rose Rocco. "I think he was trying to do the best that he could do, but he didn't meet the standard he needed to."

Hamilton acknowledged that many of Mixson's problems stemmed from problems with his staff. Despite that, Hamilton wrote to Mixson: "It is a basic management principle that while a supervisor can delegate authority, he cannot delegate responsibility. You are ultimately responsible for the failures of the Department of Public Works."

For Hamilton, who has tied his own fate as county administrator to the successful completion of the dredge, the final decision on Mixson was about multimillion-dollar, multiyear projects that simply were not getting done efficiently.

"We're going to move the Department of Public Works to an organization that succeeds consistently," Hamilton said. "Our credibility is on the line."

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



Mixson's tenure in Hernando County marked by errors, embarrassments 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 1:08pm]

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