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Head of state buildings pushes back on 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

TALLAHASSEE — Linda South, head of the state agency responsible for construction of state buildings, held her tongue last week after Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos called for her head.

He said South's "irresponsible oversight" has "clearly wasted millions of taxpayer dollars" in the construction of the new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal.

But now South has answered. If there is blame to be laid beyond the judges who spent many hours lobbying lawmakers for the $48 million project, South said in an interview, it's at the feet of legislative leaders who chose to toss one last chunk of money — $5.5 million — at the project in 2008.

"I don't have the authority to fund any project," South said. "The judges and the Legislature sought and authorized funding for this, and the very bunch that authorized funding is pointing the finger at us."

An audit that Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink released last week said South's agency, the Department of Management Services, lost control of the project to aggressive, bullying judges.

South said some of the audit's criticisms are simply wrong, most importantly the finding that the DMS did not seek competitive bids for the project, which some have dubbed the "Taj Mahal" courthouse.

The agency reviewed proposals from five companies before selecting Peter G. Brown Construction as the prime contractor at a negotiated fee, South said, a process allowed by law and commonly used for such projects. She said the contractor sought competitive bids for everything else.

South said she will issue a formal response to the audit. She was critical of Sink's office for releasing the audit without seeking comment from the agency being audited, a generally accepted practice with audits. South said she obtained the audit from the St. Petersburg Times' website.

She said there was a point, early enough in the project, to "put a fence around the design of the courthouse."

Her agency is supposed to be in charge of constructing state buildings, but e-mails show that the DMS and the judges struggled over control. South replaced one agency architect with another after the first one clashed with the judges over control.

The judges wanted veto power over anything the DMS did, a point South refused to concede, though the DMS agreed to notify the judges of everything.

First District Court Judge Paul M. Hawkes, chairman of the court's building committee, objected when he felt the court was not included in even the smallest details.

"We are under the impression that there have been communications where we were not included," Hawkes wrote in a 2007 e-mail. " … We feel it is essential that NO communications occur about this project without us being included."

In February 2008, the judges insisted on firing Tallahassee architects Barnett Fronczak Barlowe because the firm refused to design a building that would cost more than the state had budgeted.

"The judges were unhappy; they wanted more building than they had money to spend," South recalled.

The judges wanted a building with "wow" factor — "worthy of the court and its functions," according to 2007 notes taken by Hawkes' law clerk of early meetings between the architects and judges.

Chris Kise, attorney for Gov. Charlie Crist, attended one meeting and warned the judges that the governor and Legislature supported "a nice courtly facility but not at the expense of the four other DCAs and the Supreme Court," where there are older facilities.

A meeting on Feb. 28, 2008, included Hawkes, fellow 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr., South and key legislative staffers: David Coburn and Bob Ward, chiefs of staff for Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio; and budget staff from the House and Senate.

Gathered in the House speaker's conference room, South said, the group agreed the architects would design a building with the "footprint" the judges wanted, but seal off part of it and leave it unfinished until future needs required the space. The court has 15 judges but wanted to design a building that would accommodate 18 judicial suites, a third law clerk for every judge and others that might be authorized in future years.

"Everyone agreed," South recalled.

But when the 2008 legislative session ended three months later, the judges had lobbied their way into $5.5 million more, carved from the Workers' Compensation Trust Fund, despite serious budget cuts in almost every other segment of the state budget.

South said the DMS had no idea the judges were still lobbying for more money or that legislators might be willing to ante up even more than what had been committed: $7.9 million in general revenue and a $33.5 million bond issue, which was tucked into a transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session.

In an e-mail to his fellow judges dated April 27, 2008, the day lawmakers finished work on a new budget, Hawkes said that in "on and off again" negotiations across the weekend, the court managed to get the additional money.

The final push, Hawkes noted, came in a "very successful meeting with Speaker Rubio." Hawkes also noted that the court got $981,688 more for a new workers' compensation unit to be created at the court.

At that point, South said, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, told her to build what the judges wanted but to be sure they got "quality construction and stayed within the budget."

Crist says he served as an ad hoc member of the building committee, mostly to try to keep peace between the DMS and the judges.

South said she does not intend to resign but will leave government at the end of Gov. Crist's term and return to private industry, as she had long planned.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to head the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, and Gov. Crist named her DMS secretary in early 2007. She previously ran a consulting company with expertise in operations and public policy research, and she was executive director of the Brevard Workforce Development Board.

South is accustomed to being excoriated by members of the Senate. The past two years, Senate Appropriations Chairman J.D. Alexander has pushed to dismantle the DMS, saying the agency has not done a good job managing state contracts.

But South said Haridopolos' call for her resignation was especially disappointing. Both are from Merritt Island.

"If he was really interested, he should have asked for our response or called me," she said. "Instead, he wrote a letter and contacted the news media. It's sad. We've known each other a long time."

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Find the 47-page audit report and previous coverage of the $48 million courthouse at links.tampabay.com.

Head of state buildings pushes back on 'Taj Mahal' courthouse 10/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 10:40am]

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