No show, no $2.3-million for Hillsborough elections chief

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White tells Kathy Harris, right, that her boss’ request is being rejected and that an audit of the elections office is called for.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White tells Kathy Harris, right, that her boss’ request is being rejected and that an audit of the elections office is called for.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners, seething after Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson didn't show up to plead for $2.3-million to cover his office's cost overruns, unanimously rejected his last-minute request Wednesday.

Johnson, who leaves office next month, took a beating in absentia for failing to make his pitch in person. He sent chief deputy Kathy Harris, who faced a barrage of questions from commissioners asking her to justify the need for more money.

"I'm focusing here on the disrespect Mr. Johnson is showing to the people he represents," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "He couldn't be here today? I cannot believe — I'm still in a state of shock — that he's not here to answer some of these questions."

Commissioners instead voted unanimously to dispatch a team of financial experts to Johnson's office to determine whether the request is legitimate.

This rebuke of Johnson, a Republican, from a board dominated by members of his own party comes after a string of election troubles. Voters complained in November of partial ballots, failed machines and results that took days to finalize.

Johnson lost his bid for re-election. And he's seeking a cash infusion equal to more than one- third of the budget request commissioners approved for him only two months ago.

Harris said the money is needed to cover unexpected expenses for last month's election, which saw high turnout and a switch to new paper ballots. Dealing with those factors brought unanticipated costs for overtime and extra equipment.

"The biggest part of the costs relate to things that are not sexy or exciting," Harris said. "These things put a tremendous impact on the cost of the elections."

Reached after the meeting, Johnson said Harris always makes his budget presentations and he watched the discussion on television. As Harris said during the meeting, Johnson said he had asked for extra money during the budget process as a contingency, but was denied.

"I'm glad they missed me," Johnson said. "This is all politics. I understand there were a lot of cameras there, and that explains most of it.''

In addition to his absence, commissioners struggled with the timing of the request and the thin amount of supporting documentation for it. They had a hard time accepting that Johnson could be so far off in his cost projections.

Although commissioners approve the budgets of constitutional officers such as the elections supervisor, they typically defer to their financial judgment. But county budget director Eric Johnson said the supervisor's office provided no backup documents to support his request.

The fact that Johnson waited until the last possible commission meeting before he leaves office to seek a financial bailout chafed commissioners all the more.

"I could not and would not vote at this meeting for any expenditure of funds," said GOP Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

"I just don't see approving $2.3-million at this point in time," added Democratic Commissioner Kevin White.

Johnson was defeated by Democrat and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky.

Reached late Wednesday, Busansky said she supports the commission's decision.

Harris said the office has enough money to keep running, but the extra cash would make for a smoother transition. Busansky will oversee a Plant City Commission election in April.

Kurt Browning, Florida's top elections official, had chastised Johnson for his slow transition to optical scan voting machines, which was state-mandated. Meanwhile, Johnson took over management of his Elections Office finances this year from the Clerk of the Circuit Court, saying it wouldn't cost taxpayers additional money.

Ferlita, who was particularly critical of fellow Republican Johnson, rattled off potentially questionable expenditures that needed further explanation, such as nearly $5,000 for identification pins for elections workers.

She also singled out Harris' employment agreement, which runs through May even though Johnson was up for re-election. Her annual salary is $150,000, and the agreement provides that Harris would get three months' notice if Johnson were to lose the election and his replacement didn't keep her.

Harris declined to speak about the agreement after the meeting, but later sent a brief e-mail of explanation.

"I've let Phyllis know I will resign as soon as she becomes supervisor on January 6th, with an effective date April 7, 2009, right after the Plant City Election," it says.

Busansky said she expects to keep Harris on in the transition but said she does not know how long or whether the employment agreement is binding.

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

No show, no $2.3-million for Hillsborough elections chief 12/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 4:21pm]

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