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Personnel issues dominate year in Hernando government

The headlines of 2008 were filled with one scandal after another, miring public employees in a series of controversies.

Hernando County government employees topped the list. Several top officials lost their jobs, and a longtime county department head was placed on suspension. A series of audits and investigations demonstrated problems ranging from misconduct to racial harassment.

For new County Administrator David Hamilton, who started in mid March, multiple "alarm bells,'' as he called them, sounded shortly after his arrival.

The first week of April, accusations of racism swirled around a county utilities crew that worked out of the Wiscon Road utilities office. An employee, Jason Booker, and a former employee, Floyd Moore, recounted stories of racial harassment by their white co-workers, including the display of a noose and comments telling one of them to go "back to Africa.''

Workers were suspended and placed on leave while the county hurried to launch a full investigation. An outside firm was brought in and concluded that harassment had taken place. Facing a suspension and demotion, supervisor Mike Smith quit over the allegations.

Worker Will Wilson was suspended for three days without pay, and Darrell Rose was reprimanded for his part in the situation. County workers across the board ended up in sensitivity training to be sure they knew where the line was on the harassment issue.

But the inquiry into the problems in the Utilities Department ended up costing the county's 10-year human resources director, Barbara Dupre, her job as well.

The independent review of the utilities situation concluded that Dupre might not have handled the situation correctly. While she followed much of the written county policy, the outside law firm recommended policy changes.

A continuing problem with a violation of policy against conducting political activities at work, plus a history of audit complaints that Dupre had not followed up on over the years, were also cited as reasons why she was forced to resign.

Even as Hamilton was dealing with the human resources and utilities problems, another controversy was breaking in the county's Emergency Management Office, another case in which Dupre's involvement was called into question.

Overtime and payroll records were the focus of a criminal investigation that resulted in the firing of Tom Leto, emergency management director, and the arrest of his secretary, Stephanie Anderson, who resigned during the investigation.

Anderson still faces charges of grand theft and official misconduct for allegedly collecting overtime for days when she was actually shopping, going to doctor's appointments and visiting a spa.

The investigation turned up a personal relationship between Leto and Anderson that had generated an atmosphere of distrust and anxiety in the Emergency Management Office.

It was a business relationship that got former Hernando County pavement management coordinator Bill Busch into trouble with his bosses at the Department of Public Works.

Busch had been a county employee until the end of 2007, then came back to work early in 2008 as a contract employee performing some of the same duties. But he was also acting as the local agent for a company that did business with the county, a cozy arrangement that prompted a sheriff's investigation.

There has not yet been a resolution to that case.

The case also focused Hamilton on the supervision Busch had received from Charles Mixson, the county engineer and public works director.

Citing the conflict of interest posed in the Busch case, a disciplinary situation where Mixson's handling of it was questioned, and delays in high-profile public works projects such as the Hernando Beach channel dredging and the cleanup at the old, contaminated public works compound, Hamilton suspended Mixson without pay for two weeks.

Hamilton also ordered weekly meetings with Mixson after his return — meetings that Hamilton said have been productive.

The disciplinary case involving Mixson centered around the county's property management coordinator, Michael Silvey, who was fired after he called a county employee he knew in the Human Resources Department and asked her for sex. While he appealed the firing, his position was eliminated, and he never returned to work.

"There were a number of challenges that certainly required us to move very quickly,'' Hamilton acknowledged about his busy first months as administrator. He said his experience putting out fires in other jobs helps him know how to respond when a major issue arises.

As the county's leader, he said, "you've got to be able to make the call. …You've got to be accountable.''

County officials didn't corner the market on misconduct during 2008.

In July, Republican candidate for Congress Jim King dropped out of the race, days after the St. Petersburg Times revealed that he had made inaccurate claims about his medical credentials.

Other details of King's life also surfaced, including a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing and a domestic violence injunction that led to a divorce and a stalking charge.

A veteran Hernando Sheriff's Office lieutenant, Robert Libengood, resigned in October after supervisors noted discrepancies on his time cards. They found 11 days when he claimed he worked but did not.

The resignation ended a criminal investigation into the charges.

Sheriff's Office finance director Emily Vernon was charged with driving drunk, a charge that came 10 days after deputies say she crashed her truck and acted intoxicated at the crash scene.

The charges did not come until witnesses stepped forward to confirm she was driving the truck at the time of the crash.

The charge is pending.

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

Personnel issues dominate year in Hernando government 12/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 2:05pm]
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