TAMPA — Dismissing allegations that they pulled strings behind the scenes, members of Hillsborough County's Planning Commission voted Wednesday to rehire longtime executive director Bob Hunter, a move that would pay him both a salary and a pension.
Hunter, who has been retired for a little more than a month, also would get to keep a $206,731 lump-sum payment he received in January under a state program intended to encourage veteran government workers to retire.
The decision drew fire from Planning Commission board member Ed Giunta, who said the deal was legal, but raised concerns that it was orchestrated with other board members, a process that would violate the state's public meetings laws.
"It appears to me that certain things were done to set this up in advance," Giunta said. "I could be wrong, but there are too many questions."
Giunta, a developer, voted against negotiating a contract with Hunter. He was joined by three others board members who also work in development: Temple Terrace City Council member Frank Chillura, who is in property management, and engineers Hung Mai and Derek Doughty.
Hunter's supporters say he is being singled out by development interests because he supports smart growth over sprawl.
"Bob Hunter has been dragged through the mud," said Kelly Cornelius, a Lithia homeowner who writes for a local blog, Sticks of Fire. "He's done nothing wrong but pick up the phone and agree to serve his community."
Board members Jill Buford, Terri Cobb, Miller Dowdy, Vivian Kitchen, Jacqueline Wilson, and chairman Bruce Cury voted to rehire Hunter. Cury will negotiate terms with Hunter and bring the contract back to the board for approval.
If the contract is rejected, the board will have to find another executive director.
Cury dismissed speculation that the deal was rigged, saying the job offer was "about hiring the best person."
Hunter didn't attend the meeting, but said afterward he was ready to get back to work leading a planning effort that will help guide the spending of billions in federal relief money.
"I'm glad to come back," he said. "I understand the concerns people have, but I think once the details emerged, it became clear that I've followed the requirements of state law."
Hunter, like hundreds of other employees around the state, is seeking to take advantage of the deferred retirement option program, or DROP, that allows an employee to retire for a month and return to work with the same salary and a monthly pension.
The program was intended to spur older employees to retire so that younger employees could rise through the ranks. But a St. Petersburg Times investigation last year found the program costs taxpayers $300 million a year.
In Hunter's case, he wouldn't get his $3,900 monthly pension in his first year back. But he would get that pension, along with a yet-to-be-determined salary, beginning the second year. Hunter served 21 years as executive director of the Planning Commission, which oversees the county's long-range growth plan. He had a $145,350 salary when he retired last year.
The possibility of Hunter's return was first raised at a Feb. 9 meeting of a Planning Commission subcommittee charged with searching for a new executive director. Members phoned Hunter during the meeting and he told them he could start immediately. Afterward, he said it hadn't been his intention to return when he retired last year.
But in 2006, Hunter inquired about whether he could retire with a guarantee to be rehired. The answer was no. Planning Commission attorney Tracy Robin told Hunter in an e-mail that "giving you any kind of commitment to rehire you after the DROP period has significant risk for the agency and you personally."
On Wednesday, Robin said Hunter hasn't jeopardized the DROP payments because there was no evidence he had broken any laws by orchestrating it ahead of time.
Some board members fretted that rehiring Hunter under questionable circumstances might make the Planning Commission vulnerable to political attacks or budgetary cuts.
But County Commissioner Jim Norman, who said he has reservations about Hunter's rehiring, said he doesn't plan any retaliation.
"I don't believe it should have been done, but I don't want to second-guess them," Norman said. "They're going to face the same scrutiny at budget time as the other departments, but it won't be because of Bob Hunter."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402.