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Sparks fly between Hernando commissioner, court clerk over contracts aide

BROOKSVILLE — Frustrated by delays in public discussion of the issue, departing County Commissioner Rose Rocco blasted Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai on Tuesday, demanding to know details of the clerk's arrangement with her controversial consultant Lisa Hammond.

Rocco, who was defeated in last week's election, demanded a variety of public documents including details of Hammond's contract with Nicolai and information about how much Hammond, who earns $55 per hour, has been paid to date.

When Nicolai stood up to tell Rocco she couldn't answer all the questions without the list of questions in front of her, the commissioner shot back that Nicolai has had plenty of time to gather information. Rocco said Nicolai had delayed coming to the board twice, ensuring that the discussion would take place after the election.

The heated exchange sets up possible action by the board next week when Wayne Dukes is sworn in as Rocco's replacement in the District 2 seat. The board could not act Tuesday because possible changes to the agreement between the county and Nicolai's office had not been properly advertised.

Rocco has said purchasing duties should come back under the county's control. Nicolai gained oversight months ago when the county eliminated the position of purchasing director.

But Rocco's concerns expanded as the county got into trouble with two huge contracts: the jail contract with former operator Corrections Corporation of America and the dredging contract with Orion Dredging Services LLC.

CCA has taken the county to federal court over nonpayment of fees, while Orion has threatened legal action and the county has pulled the company's bond. Rocco has said that Hammond is not qualified to be a major player on those issues.

Hammond's background has come under scrutiny after the St. Petersburg Times raised questions about the doctorate on her resume, which came from an unaccredited university critics have called a diploma mill. Questions about other parts of her resume remain unanswered.

But Nicolai strongly defended the work that Hammond and the rest of her staff have been doing, both in purchasing and contracts, and in information technology, which Nicolai's office took over earlier.

Nicolai gave a detailed presentation demonstrating ways that the combined clerk and county staff had added more accountability, more efficiency, better planning and cost savings into both departments.

After the presentation, Rocco said bringing Hammond into the picture was "a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.'' She questioned what else about the hiring process was hidden and whether Nicolai was trying to delay discussion to "sweep the matter under the rugs.''

Then she questioned why County Administrator David Hamilton was still earning a handsome salary when he has been delegating county responsibilities such as purchasing, information technology, emergency management and the jail.

Rocco said she would be at the meeting next week as a private citizen and will continue to ask questions such as whether Hammond did a background check of the firm the staff recommended hiring last week to complete the stalled Hernando Beach Channel dredging project, a firm with questionable subcontractors.

Did Hammond bring the firm to the board knowing the background information or did Hamilton ask her to bring it forward? Rocco asked.

She chided Nicolai for delaying the public discussion saying it was disrespectful and noting, "The taxpayers are the ones who are concerned about this.''

Nicolai, who commented that she had held her elected job for more than 30 years without getting voted out of office, said she would answer Rocco's questions at the next meeting.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins offered his solution to the situation. He asked the commission to consider at next week's meeting a motion to end the agreement and have human resources seek a qualified professional to take over purchasing under the county and not the clerk.

That would save the county the $5,000 a month it pays toward Hammond's consultant fee and the $18,000 annual bump up in salary paid to the county's chief procurement officer Matt Perry for taking on extra duties. Human resources could certainly find a qualified person who earns far less than the estimated $115,000 Hammond's consultant pay would amount to in one year, Stabins reasoned.

Commission Chairman John Druzbick expressed concern that the purchasing department, which has lost several employees, has been getting help from the clerk but some contracts are still months behind. There was also an issue several months ago with bills getting paid so late that some suppliers were threatening to cut off shipments.

Losing the clerk's help could just make that worse, Druzbick said.

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

Sparks fly between Hernando commissioner, court clerk over contracts aide 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 8:12pm]
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