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Outgoing Hernando County Administrator accused of shredding public documents

BROOKSVILLE — As David Hamilton's tenure as county administrator draws to a close, an allegation about an incident from his early days on the job has surfaced to haunt him.

This week, Hernando resident Paul Douglas filed a complaint with the State Attorney's Office, accusing Hamilton of shredding public documents related to the 2008 investigation of racial discrimination at the Wiscon Road county utilities office.

The complaint will be investigated by the office to determine whether records were destroyed and, if so, whether they were public records, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said Thursday.

The incident involved Joe Stapf, the county's former environmental services director, who took a job earlier this month in Minnesota.

Stapf said Thursday that he was conducting employee interviews regarding the racial discrimination complaints in his department in the spring of 2008. During those interviews, which were taped by Beth Howley of the county human resources office and attended by Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben, Stapf took notes on a yellow legal pad.

At one point during a break, he walked over to the county administration office to bring Hamilton up to speed on what he was learning from the employees.

As he flipped through the pages, recalling parts of the interview, Hamilton walked over to him and pulled the pages out of Stapf's hands, feeding them into a nearby shredder, Stapf said.

"He told me, 'I don't want you taking notes of any kind in these conversations,' '' Stapf said.

He said that since the interviews were being recorded, he didn't necessarily think his notes were any type of official record.

"I was just getting things down, like I do all the time,'' Stapf said. "It helps me remember stuff.''

He said he often used notes to do formal reports, or he would go back to the audio of an interview to complete his documentation.

At the time, Stapf said of Hamilton's move, "It certainly was a surprise. I was taken aback by it. Never have I had someone take papers out of my hands before.''

Several days later, Stapf said, Hamilton apologized.

"He said he was overreacting,'' Stapf said.

Douglas, who is president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he was acting as an individual when he filed his complaint with the State Attorney's Office. When he recently heard about the incident, while investigating another matter in Citrus County, he said, "I was just dumbfounded. I knew David was smarter than that.''

Douglas lodged his displeasure with Hamilton at Tuesday's commission meeting, detailing to the commission and the public Stapf's version of the events surrounding the paper shredding based on a telephone conversation he'd had with Stapf several days ago.

The allegation was part of the groundswell of criticism at the meeting, which eventually ended with Commissioner John Druzbick calling for Hamilton's ouster. The commission instead agreed to let Hamilton craft a transition plan that will lead to his departure at the end of the year.

At Tuesday's meeting, Hamilton declined to comment on the record about the shredding incident. He didn't have a lot more to say Thursday.

"Given the nature of the complaint, I'm unable to comment at this time. What I can say is that I am deeply disappointed in the manner in which this allegation was made,'' Hamilton said.

He said that he takes such matters seriously and that there are policies in place for handling such situations, and if there was a problem it should have come up then and "not in a casual conversation three years later,'' Hamilton said.

Notes taken by a public employee can be a public record in some circumstances.

In a 2010, the city manager of Venice asked Attorney General Bill McCollum: "Are personal notes, taken by a city employee in the course of conducting his official duties and made for the purpose of assisting him in remembering matters discussed, public records subject to public disclosure?''

McCollum answered: " It is my opinion that personal notes, taken in the course of conducting official business by a public employee, are not public records subject to the provisions of Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, if the notes have not been transcribed or shown to others and were not intended to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge.''

This is not the first time Hamilton has been the subject of an investigation by the State Attorney's Office.

Earlier this year, the office investigated the administrator regarding issues related to the Hernando Beach Channel dredge and the selection of Greg Jarque as the project manager. That investigation found no criminal wrongdoing by Hamilton.

That case has also been forwarded to the FBI, where the matter "remains under review,'' according to spokesman David Couvertier.

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

Outgoing Hernando County Administrator accused of shredding public documents 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 8:00pm]
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