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Buddy Johnson makes it expensive to remove top aide

TAMPA — Incoming Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Phyllis Busansky will have to deal with at least one more curiosity when she takes office, in addition to a budget headache.

She will inherit departing Supervisor Buddy Johnson's top deputy, like it or not.

Johnson signed an employment agreement with Kathy Harris, his chief of staff and general counsel, this year that keeps her on board until May. Busansky takes office Jan. 6.

The terms were crafted that way even though Johnson faced a re-election challenge in November, which he ultimately lost.

The agreement contemplates that possibility and that Johnson's successor may not want to keep his most trusted adviser. It then obligates Busansky to provide Harris three months' notice if she decides to let her go, with full pay and benefits.

At Harris' $175,032 annual salary (as of Nov. 11), that's worth at least $43,000, plus the cost of benefits.

Johnson declined an e-mail request for comment, saying, "The document is very straight-forward and speaks for itself."

Harris declined to answer questions sent by e-mail as well.

"I do not anticipate any issue about my leaving or staying or the time frame," Harris wrote. "I serve at the pleasure of the supervisor and my leaving has always been a matter of timing and professional protocol."

She has indicated she intends to remain on the job until an April 6 Plant City municipal election, to ease the transition.

The County Attorney's Office has been asking questions about the agreement at the behest of County Commissioner Rose Ferlita. Ferlita used the agreement last week as fodder when Johnson asked commissioners for an extra $2.3-million to pay unanticipated costs from the November election.

She was particularly angry that Johnson sent Harris to make the request, holding out the hand-me-down expense to Busansky as a matter deserving explanation.

"Why should she absorb (the cost) that's she's going to pass on to the taxpayers?" Ferlita asked.

Harris provided a copy of the agreement to the County Attorney's Office, which will be the legal counsel for the supervisor's office when Busansky takes office. The copy includes no witness or notary signature, though the body of the document indicates it was signed and executed May 12. It runs through May 12, 2009.

It also includes several typographical errors, referring to the "supervisor of elections" without the "s" at the end of "elections" in various spots, for instance.

County Attorney Renee Lee said that a witness or notary is not required for such an agreement, though it is customary. She also said nothing prevents elected officials from signing employment contracts with underlings that extend beyond their term.

"You would think he would end the term of the contract so that it would coincide with the term of the office," Lee said. "So he has left that whole situation for Phyllis to clean up. Now it's on her to handle that."

Busansky has said she is not sure what to make of the agreement. While she has her own chief deputy coming in, she may welcome some help in the transition. For how long, she's not sure.

She said she'll deal with it after she's sworn in.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Buddy Johnson makes it expensive to remove top aide 12/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:55am]

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