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Staff input helps clear the air of some bias

An old-timer could almost get nostalgic watching the Hernando County Commission's recent maneuvering to help a certain well-established engineering firm.

It harkened back to the days when folks never saw a stranger on the streets of Brooksville, when business deals were sealed with handshakes, when Coastal Engineering Associates got every stinkin' job in town.

As my co-worker Barbara Behrendt reported last week, the commission awarded Coastal the job of drawing up plans for moving a water main to accommodate the widening of County Line Road between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41.

This is not a great technical challenge, nothing Coastal or probably any of the other candidates can't handle. With an estimated price somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000, it won't make Coastal rich.

It wouldn't even be news except that for the past several years, county staffers have been recommending which companies should get these jobs, with the commission either approving the top choice or asking the staff to start over.

But in February, commissioners changed the policy to add a third option: hearing presentations from the firms for themselves.

And that's what they decided to do April 24, after they'd received the staff's list of preferred companies and found a name other than Coastal's on top.

Commissioner John Druzbick made the motion to hear from all the firms May 8, which is when the commission chose Coastal.

Druzbick, whose re-election campaign has taken a donation from Coastal and about every other notable business interest in Brooksville, said this decision had nothing to do with politics — had nothing to do, even, with the fact that Coastal is local and the staff's top choice was based in Ocala.

When the commission rewrote its old policy in February, he explained, it removed a spot for a commissioner to sit with the committee of staffers that recommends contractors for professional services. With that position gone, he said, all he cared about was getting more "insight into the process." As proof of his intentions, he pointed out that the commission also heard from three out-of-town finalists competing for an unrelated engineering job.

At the risk of sounding like a skeptical grump, I have a hard time believing this.

I have a hard time imagining that commissioners sat through hours of brutally dull testimony for the opportunity to reshuffle the order of three apparently qualified firms from Tampa competing to consult with the county about wastewater.

(For one thing, the commission demonstrated the depth of its interest in water quality at the same meeting by scrapping a state requirement for septic tank inspections.)

I have a hard time believing Druzbick just wanted more "insight."

I have a hard time believing that all five commissioners made Coastal their first choice strictly because of the firm's abilities and not because it is based in Brooksville and not because they'd like to have company president Cliff Manuel on their side during an election year.

For his part, Manuel said he didn't ask the commission for a chance to compete for the job — doesn't even want it if he was chosen because of his company's location rather than its qualifications.

This is not like the 1980s and 1990s, he said, when the company relied heavily on public work that relied heavily on political connections.

"I'm creating a different Coastal," Manuel said.

Other than pointing out that its connections also helped get it lots of private work, let's leave the discussion about Coastal's past and present for another day.

Let's just take Druzbick and Manuel at their word, that they're as opposed to favoritism as anybody.

If that's the case, they should have no objection to turning back the clock — not decades, just months — to the good old days when the commission respected its staff's ability to recommend firms without bias.

Just thinking about it is enough to make you nostalgic.

Staff input helps clear the air of some bias 05/15/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 9:02pm]
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