HUDSON — Not long ago, County Commissioner Jack Mariano was driving by Arthur F. Engle Memorial Park when he stopped to check out an asphalt contractor at work.
From his car, he watched the county-hired contractor apply sealant to help waterproof the parking lot.
Mariano had been closely following the project — part of a $34,213 package — after a tip from another contractor. On this day, as he watched the way the crew filled pavement cracks, he was convinced the work fell short.
"I go, 'What are these people doing?' " recalled Mariano, who did similar sealant jobs while working his way through college. "When I saw that, I called (parks director) Rick Buckman."
Mariano's parking lot inquiry provides another glimpse into his hands-on governing style, one that often wins him praise among his constituents — but also leaves him vulnerable to criticism that he's overstepped his bounds.
In recent months, Mariano has:
• Worked hand-in-hand with a Hudson group hoping to get its own sports complex built at Engle Park, giving ammunition to critics who say he's trying to derail the multi-use sports complex proposal before commissioners.
• Asked county staff get the state Department of Transportation to remove "No Parking" signs on one side of a frontage road along U.S. 19 after businesses complained, angering one resident who had asked for the signs after bar patrons parked in his yard.
And the parking lot issue also illustrates the good — and potential hazards — of getting close to the action.
On one hand, Mariano was right: Officials say the job was not up to par, and the county has held off paying the contractor until an outside engineer takes a look at the work.
On the other hand, he got burned by another contractor who sent a Nov. 6 letter with harsh allegations against Mariano to the full commission — and which Mariano has since forwarded to the State Attorney's Office.
Mariano said he would not have done it any differently.
"I'm not a high-risk guy but every time you talk to a person you're open to that," Mariano said. "Sometimes you need to get close to a situation to understand it."
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Mariano's style is nothing new. From the time he first ran for the commission in 2004, Mariano made constituent service his priority, and he criticized his opponent Peter Altman — a Democratic incumbent who saw himself as more of a policymaker shaping Pasco's long-term growth — for not being responsive enough to residents.
That's why Mariano is so well-liked in many circles.
Jeff Sylvan, a Hudson resident working with the group that wants to get as many as eight new fields for tournament play at Engle Park, said Mariano has been an advocate for bringing activity to Hudson.
"He's hands on. He's around his constituents and trying to build the area up," said Sylvan. "He comes out and talks to everybody and tries to get their opinion."
Just last week, Sylvan said, he and Mariano met with some engineers about the "Hudson Sports Complex" project, which now has its own Web site (www.hudsonsportscomplex.com). Mariano is listed as a guest member.
But at the same time Mariano and the rest of the commissioners are considering a multi-use sports complex that a consultant has recommended be built in Trinity.
Mariano has grilled the California-based consultant, Sportsplex USA, on everything from its financial records to its proposed use of artificial grass. Commissioner Michael Cox, a proponent of Sportsplex, says Mariano's sole goal is to get a similar project at Engle Park.
After last week's meeting, a clearly irritated Sportsplex official, Paul Berghoff, dismissed Mariano as an "obstructionist."
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Mariano has faced criticisms of his approach before, too. Back in 2006, he met privately with a resident challenging the Development Review Committee's approval of a Bayonet Point townhouse project as the issue was headed to the commission on appeal.
Mariano took heat from then-county attorney Robert Sumner as well as fellow commissioners for his move.
But Mariano says he knows he did the right thing this year when he brought the parking lot problems to county officials' attention.
Now, county staff are withholding payment to the contractor after realizing the work — basically some band-aid repairs, since the county lacked funds this year to put down a new asphalt base — done at Engle and three other parks had shortcomings, said assistant county administrator Dan Johnson.
An outside engineer is analyzing how the contractor met the specifications laid out in the bid package, he said, and the staff is also putting together its own report.
But as he worked on the issue, Mariano also got himself pulled into a disagreement between two men who were following the status of the parking lot projects.
The short version of the story: One of the men, Bob Collins of Hernando County, claims in a letter to commissioners that the other man, Rickey Cheeks of Hudson, bragged that Mariano offered Cheeks a county inspection job and "one-two million dollars of work to keep his mouth shut."
False and absurd, say both Mariano and Cheeks.
Cheeks, also a contractor, had gone to Mariano with concerns about earlier projects in the county not being done up to par. He had also submitted a bid — almost $70,000 — on the parking lot improvements package, which went to a different contractor.
Mariano stayed in touch with Cheeks for his expertise, asking him to put his concerns in writing and setting up an appointment with top administrators to discuss the work.
Cheeks said Collins, an acquaintance, became angry when he was excluded from the meeting Mariano held with administrators and Cheeks on the issue. That's when Collins wrote the letter.
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Other commissioners saw the letter but knew little about the claims.
But veteran Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who first came on board in 1984 soon after a grand jury indicted one commissioner and found that other commissioners improperly gave direction to county employees, knows the perils of getting too close to the daily operations.
"I've lived here a long time," said Hildebrand. "I know of some of the things that have gone on in the past."
She and Commissioner Ted Schrader say that's why they take most of their concerns directly to County Administrator John Gallagher instead of lower-level staff. Schrader said it's important for staff members to know who they report to.
"You can only have one chief," said Schrader.
Mariano said he knows the drill, too. But he thinks he's got the right approach, especially when it comes to responding to constituents.
One day last week, an elderly woman in Hudson called the commission office to complain she was having a tough time getting her deceased husband's veterans benefits and, consequently, needed utility assistance.
Mariano says he hooked the woman up with the county officials who handle that issue. But he didn't stop there. The woman had also mentioned her garage was a mess, so on Thursday, Mariano was headed to her home, to help clean up.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.