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Pinellas County's newest commissioner advocated for spending cuts — except when it comes to his own aide

As a candidate, newly elected Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche decried the "spend it or lose it mentality" in government.

Now that he's taking office, Roche is asking for an executive assistant even as the board is trying to phase out the job as part of budget cuts.

Roche, who will be sworn in Tuesday, says he needs the extra help as a new commissioner with tough issues on tap, such as extending the tourist tax for a possible new Tampa Bay Rays stadium and another year of budget cuts.

"I have considerable expectations to go in there and do a lot of work, and I'm going to need those eyes," Roche said late Monday following the monthly Pinellas Republican Party meeting. "Trust me, I'm going to go to work on the 16th."

Each of the seven commissioners has an aide paid $44,000 to $64,000, depending on experience. This summer, the board decided that any vacancies among the aides would go unfilled, and the remaining aides would share work.

Outgoing commissioner Calvin Harris' assistant Kimberly Williams is leaving with the 13-year commissioner, as is custom with top aides. She makes almost $62,000 and $22,000 in benefits.

Roche initially told a Times reporter on Monday he'd hire his brother Brian Roche as an aide. The new commissioner talked about how much of a trusted adviser his brother had been as part of running a bare-bones campaign from the candidate's garage. In fact, Brian Roche, working as the manager of a gentlemen's club, ran as a write-in candidate in 2006 to help the second of his brother's three failed campaigns to be a commissioner.

But Florida's anti-nepotism law bans a commissioner from hiring a relative or appointing a family member. After a reporter Tuesday questioned the legality of such a hire, Roche said he never intended to hire his brother and wasn't clear during the interview.

"I mixed playing around with you with reality. That's my bad," Roche said, adding that as a former county utilities employee, he understood the law.

Nonetheless, Roche said an aide is a justified and practical cost, though he said he hasn't chosen the person. Besides helping him acclimate to the job, an aide would reduce the chances of violating the state's open meetings law, Roche said. Commissioners are barred from trading information on policy issues via another employee.

"I think we're just asking for trouble with that," Roche said.

When the board decided at a June 15 workshop against filling vacancies, the commissioners had resisted layoffs — which happened to 200 county workers — and a second year of pay cuts to some aides.

The board will discuss Roche's request at a Nov. 16 work session. But the public won't hear the discussion because the group will break away in a conference room away from public television broadcast but with a court reporter. Commissioner Karen Seel said it was appropriate to go off camera because notes would be taken and other personnel decisions usually aren't made in public meetings.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he was comfortable with Roche hiring an aide, adding that the board ought to focus on bigger issues. Seel supported leaving any openings unfilled with more spending cuts ahead.

"I stand by what we discussed at the work session," Seel said. "Everybody's been tightening their belts across the county."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County's newest commissioner advocated for spending cuts — except when it comes to his own aide 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 9:17pm]
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