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Elections staff was paralyzed with fear of bad publicity, top aide to Buddy Johnson says

Phyllis Busansky, new Hillsborough elections chief, ordered Kathy Harris to prepare a report of what went wrong in 2008.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times

Phyllis Busansky, new Hillsborough elections chief, ordered Kathy Harris to prepare a report of what went wrong in 2008.

TAMPA — Under Buddy Johnson's management, the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office was beset by an assortment of problems that are by now well-known: voting delays, lost ballots, questionable spending and a $3 million deficit.

But top of the list, according to a newly released report written by Johnson's former chief of staff and general counsel, was the bad press that hung over the election like a "dark cloud," paralyzing employees into inaction.

"Employee fear of making a mistake that could result in being blamed for an election problem, a negative story in the news, or worse, severe disciplinary action may have created a stifling work environment," Kathy Harris wrote in the 16-page report released Thursday.

Harris said this environment of fear was the worst problem that faced Johnson's oversight of the county's electoral system, a conclusion that Johnson's successor, Phyllis Busansky, doesn't support.

"She blames everything on the press, and I don't think that's true," Busansky said. "I think most of the problems were caused by office management."

Busansky ordered Harris to write the report after she took over as supervisor in early January. Busansky defeated Johnson in his bid for re-election in November. She inherited Harris, a loyal Johnson confidante and chief lieutenant whose contract doesn't run out until April. So Busansky has kept her on the staff by having her work from home and answer questions about office operations.

The report was supposed to tell Busansky what worked and what didn't during the 2008 elections. But Busansky said the report wasn't very insightful.

In parts of the report, Harris criticized the management of the office that she and Johnson supervised, outlining a series of problems that included:

• A poorly managed warehouse that led to "misplaced ballots, chaos and disarray."

• A breakdown in phone communication on Election Day that prevented poll workers at the precincts from speaking with people who could verify voter information, resulting in longer delays.

• Difficulties with the vendor of the voting machines, Premier Elections Solutions, that led to unreasonable delays.

• "Poor crisis management" and a lack of a backup plan that caused certain precincts to be overwhelmed by high voter turnout.

These criticisms contradict the sunny pronouncements from Johnson's office last year.

On Election Day, a news release trumpeted the "busy but smooth morning" of voting.

"While lines have been reported at a number of locations, wait times have been reasonable," the Nov. 4 release said. "The Elections Office has an extensive telephone support team designed to facilitate this process."

In the weeks since Johnson left office, most of the lingering questions have revolved around his spending habits. He spent more money on voter education than most other counties.

A story this week in the Times reported that he paid Michelle Patty, a community activist, more than $16,000 of taxpayer money earmarked for voter education. Although she had been a critic of Johnson, she started campaigning for him about the same time she began getting paid.

An audit last month said Johnson broke the law by overspending the budget and criticized him for mingling federal grants with local dollars.

A second audit will review spending between October and January. Florida's Department of State is ordering a third audit that will scrutinize how federal money was spent. An ethics complaint has been filed against Johnson and is being reviewed. And the FBI is investigating how Johnson spent money.

In her report, Harris said she "intentionally" ignored the spending issue because it was currently being reviewed by federal, state and county agencies.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]

Elections staff was paralyzed with fear of bad publicity, top aide to Buddy Johnson says 03/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 8:43am]
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