CLEARWATER — Quashing the idea of a quiet first day, new Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche fractured the genial board Tuesday with a request to hire his own aide.
In two separate votes, a majority of commissioners opposed his request to hire an assistant because they had agreed previously to not fill any vacancies to save money.
But Roche was unfazed.
"I'm going to start interviewing tomorrow," the 48-year-old Republican said afterward, adding that he's an "independently elected at-large member."
Legally, the County Commission cannot yet stop him, County Attorney Jim Bennett said.
"This is completely uncharted territory," Bennett said.
Two hours of sparks epitomized the uncertainty surrounding the arrival of Roche, who unexpectedly ousted 13-year Commissioner Calvin Harris in the Nov. 2 election. During his campaign, Roche, who lost three previous commission bids, accused his new co-workers of running up spending instead of budgeting wisely.
Roche said he's prepared to justify the hiring to the public, but complained the board should not let "the media" control his decisions. He later objected to a St. Petersburg Times editorial against Roche hiring an aide.
"I'm coming in with a bull's-eye on me," Roche said of his election. "There are folks who are not happy about it."
Commissioners John Morroni, Nancy Bostock, Susan Latvala and Karen Seel opposed Roche's request because of the board's previous decision. As the commission wrestled with deep budget cuts, commissioners agreed June 15 not to fill any vacancies.
Noting the risk of poor public perception to change course after hundreds of layoffs, Latvala said, "I think all of you have to admit, there is less work generated from our floor than any other department."
But Roche, a former county utilities employee, insisted as a new commissioner that he needed the help to get up and running. His office remains a work in progress, furniture stacked and walls awaiting a paint job. Harris' assistant, Kim Williams, worked her last day Monday. She was paid $62,000 annually with $22,000 in benefits, costs already budgeted for next year that Roche said he would cut by a quarter.
And he insisted the board had no way to stop him.
"I'm not even sure I have to stand here and ask permission," said Roche, who rubbed his eyes and head in frustration during his first meeting after being sworn into office that morning.
While the board disapproved his request, members couldn't agree on how to run the office with one less aide. That created the legal confusion, leaving no clear direction going forward, Bennett said.
The commission could have voted to amend the budget and stop Roche by taking away funding for the job, or by voting to make the staff smaller, as Bostock suggested. But Morroni objected to doing that without advertising the budget cuts to the public as usual, agreeing with Commissioners Ken Welch and Neil Brickfield, who backed Roche's request.
Welch and Brickfield argued that it is unfair to stop Roche from hiring an aide without a better policy in place for replacing aides, or having a legal review. Welch defended keeping seven aides because Pinellas has a smaller commission budget than Hillsborough and other counties.
As they hit an impasse over alternative plans offered by Bostock, Seel finally closed the meeting.
The commission will take up the debate again Nov. 30. Roche is unsure if he will have hired an assistant by then.
At the end, the members paused stone-faced for a few moments, then gathered their belongings.
"Welcome, uh, Norm," Welch said as he walked out.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.