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New Hillsborough elections chief shakes up staff

TAMPA — Housecleaning is under way at the office of Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson, who lost his job last week to challenger Phyllis Busansky after numerous poll problems and a protracted vote count.

Busansky said Monday she would begin her administration in January without three of Johnson's key staffers: Kathy Harris, Johnson's general counsel and director of administration; David V. Parks, the chief information officer; and Stacie Poppell, the elections office finance director.

"I have a 180-day plan to figure out what we have to shore up and what goes," Busansky said. "I'm not going backward. We're going to establish competence."

Busansky said her first change would be to move such financial tasks as vendor contracts, bill-paying and poll worker payroll back to the clerk of the circuit court, which handled the jobs for years until Johnson decided this summer to manage them in-house.

That change in financial management actually began as soon as the election outcome was known last week, Harris said, so that Busansky could enjoy a smooth transition.

Busansky also announced Monday that retired Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Craig Latimer, who managed her campaign after 35 years in law enforcement, would head her transition team and become her chief of staff overseeing day-to-day operations at the elections office.

Busansky became acquainted with Latimer when she was a Hillsborough County commissioner and the two worked on changes to the county's juvenile justice system.

Johnson, a three-term state legislator and co-founder of BuddyFreddy's restaurant, was appointed elections supervisor in 2003 and elected in 2004. This year, in scores of televised public service announcements bought with tax money, he promised to safeguard constituents' votes.

But his final election was problem-plagued.

Hundreds of residents voted without getting the second ballot page, which included referendum and amendment questions. Scores stood in line for hours when student turnout overwhelmed Johnson's undermanned precinct at the University of South Florida. Hillsborough led all large counties in Florida in provisional ballots, filed when questions came up about voter eligibility.

Then, the tabulation of votes bogged down as Johnson's staff was unable to get new optical scanners to read results. Final tallies came 48 hours after the polls closed, with workers forced to feed 80,000 ballots into scanners one by one.

The result had been predicted in Busansky's campaign literature, a recounting of Johnson's previous election-day problems: votes lost when a machine was left in "test" mode, precincts changed without written notification to voters, a local county mayor referendum effort thwarted when the elections staff mishandled petitions.

Busansky triumphed over Johnson with 51.83 percent of the vote, a margin of 17,855 votes.

Johnson did not return calls for comment.

Busansky said her job for the next few months "will be to listen and gather information to determine how this office needs to be structured."

She said she would take a hard look at the $5.8-million Premier Election Solutions voting equipment Johnson purchased, would retain the core of Johnson's 33-person staff and would explore options for legal representation, including the possibility of retaining the County Attorney's Office.

Johnson parted ways with the county attorney in 2006 and briefly moved his legal business to the Broad and Cassel law firm whose managing partner is Steve Burton, co-chairman of the 2004 local effort to re-elect George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Johnson then hired Harris to be the elections office's attorney and handle day-to-day matters.

Harris was hired away from the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute, founded by former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who recommended Johnson for appointment as elections chief.

Harris, now paid $175,032 annually, kept a tight grip on almost every facet of daily operations at Johnson's office, stayed away from the political fray but frequently had harsh words for those responsible for media reports critical of her boss.

Harris said she will now move on to her "next adventure," believing that Busansky should have the flexibility to hire her own legal counsel.

Parks, Johnson's $132,475-a-year technical expert who struggled last week to make the Premier equipment respond, was also hired from the Byrd Institute. He said Monday he welcomed the opportunity to stay on.

"I kind of assumed I'd be let go," Parks said. "But I enjoy this industry, and I would like to hang around."

Busansky said an invitation for Parks to stay would not be forthcoming.

Johnson's finance officer, accountant Stacie Poppell, paid $87,339 when she started a year ago, will leave the office in four to six weeks, after financial services have been returned to the clerk of the circuit court, Harris said. At that point, Poppell's job will have been eliminated.

Staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

New Hillsborough elections chief shakes up staff 11/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2008 8:37pm]
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