TAMPA — A newspaper opinion piece by a former county communications director suggested Friday that people ought to quit picking on Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson and let him do his job educating voters.
But the author, Mike Foerster, didn't mention that he is not merely a retired longtime government official. He's a consultant being paid $75 an hour by Johnson's office for communications and public relations services under contracts that began almost a year and a half ago.
In addition, before Foerster's column was published in the Tampa Tribune, the newspaper asked Johnson if Foerster still worked for him. Johnson denied it, according to a top editor.
Rosemary Goudreau, the Tribune's editorial page editor, said Friday that the newspaper decided to run Foerster's column, in which he described himself as "director of communications for Hillsborough County for 19 years," after determining Foerster had no relationship with the elections office.
Goudreau said she recalled that Foerster had done some work for Johnson's office and decided to verify whether that connection still existed. When a Tribune staffer called Johnson on Thursday to ask, "the supervisor said (Foerster) was not working for him," Goudreau said.
She said she didn't know Foerster was a still a consultant for Johnson until told by a St. Petersburg Times reporter about a contract extension Foerster signed in December.
"I am dismayed to learn we were misled," Goudreau said.
Goudreau added that Johnson had called back Thursday evening, sometime after saying Foerster didn't work for him and left a message with the Tribune saying he had been "in a family emergency and didn't understand the question." But Goudreau said Johnson didn't correct any information, and Friday, the Tribune published the 240-word Foerster column headlined, "Don't Knock Johnson for Doing His Job."
Johnson's recollection differs.
He says a Tribune staffer called him on his cell phone and asked if Foerster worked for him, and Johnson, just as he was preparing to take another incoming call, answered, "Not as a full-time employee," then hung up. When he called back later to clarify, Johnson says, he left a voice mail that no one answered.
Goudreau, told of Johnson's account, said the Tribune staffer never heard Johnson qualify any answer.
"It was a yes or no question," she said. "He said 'no.' "
Foerster has been a familiar face in the elections office recently.
Foerster has met with Johnson personally at least 13 times this year on election and media matters, according to Foerster's billings. Foerster has put in more than 41 hours as consultant and billed the elections supervisor for $3,093.75 in 2008.
He also has authored at least two letters to the editor on Johnson's behalf, the billings show.
But the column Foerster wrote in the Tribune suggesting the newspaper get off Johnson's back was not one of them, Foerster said Friday, explaining that he never talked to Johnson about it and had no plans to bill for the column's preparation.
"I just wrote this as a letter to the editor," Foerster said, because of the "mean-spirited treatment" of Johnson by the newspaper's editorial board.
Foerster also said he had called the Tribune to demand a correction on a March 25 Tribune editorial. In it, the newspaper scolded Johnson for using "government resources to support political ambitions" but erred in listing Jennifer Marks as a staffer of outside consultant Schiffino Lee, an ad agency hired by Johnson.
Marks serves as the $70,000-a-year chief deputy of communications, according to her own voice mail greeting, but was hired for the job title manager of voter registration, according to payroll records.
Johnson, a Republican, is a former three-term state representative and co-founder of Buddy Freddy's restaurant. He was appointed elections supervisor in 2003, won election in 2004 and is being challenged by Democrats Phyllis Busansky and Lee Nelson for re-election this year.
Jeff Testerman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3422.