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Openness arrives at Hillsborough County elections office

That impersonal piece of Plexiglas that separated the receptionist from the rest of the world and kept a pesky public from getting too close to whatever was going on inside the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office is gone.

Gone, too, is the buzzer that had to be buzzed before anyone could enter this allegedly public place.

In fact, when I stopped by this week, the entrance door was propped — are you ready for this? — open.

The new boss has big plans, too, for the front wall that encloses the place like a fortress.

"The first day, she said, 'Tear down this wall,' " voter services worker Kevin Connell told me. So that too will soon be gone.

Oh, what a difference an election makes.

Phyllis Busansky, who recently ousted the embattled Buddy Johnson for the job of overseeing the county's elections, seems determined to restore openness to a place that has had anything but.

You remember: Buddy paying an employee big bucks to keep mum on his way out the door; Buddy yanking oversight of his office's financial doings away from the county clerk's office, that sort of thing. And those weren't even the biggest of Buddy stories.

Phyllis —I'm not being presumptuous, that's what her bumper stickers said, phyllis! — would really rather talk about the future, about voter initiatives to get kids involved or the next elections.

But first she has to clean up the mess that was left behind, the legacy of lost ballots and mysteriously-moved polling places and questionable decisions of Buddy's tenure.

And in the meantime, the man will simply not stop making headlines.

A blistering post-election audit revealed Buddy mishandled grant money and overspent his budget by nearly a million bucks, on top of $2.1-million that was still owed for voting machines. He double-dipped on travel expenses. He asked for a job from a vendor who was still waiting to be paid millions.

In his final, trouble-plagued election, he, oops, also managed to miss counting 440 ballots. (So much for that every-vote-counts idea.)

Don't expect those Buddy headlines to fade away anytime soon. The County Commission has voted to ask agencies including law enforcement to look into his spending ways, a second, deeper audit is coming, and a citizen has filed an ethics complaint.

But Phyllis doesn't really want to talk about the last guy.

"I'm working here, I'm not working in the past," she says.

More redecorating: A sign naming the east-county office for the late civil rights activist Bob Gilder was down during renovations in Buddy's term and never put back up. Phyllis did that right away.

Other people may still call the place Falkenburg, after the road on which it sits, but she does not. "I've been spending a lot of time out at Gilder," she says.

Funny. A year ago, when I talked to her as she was mulling over a run for the once-mundane job of overseeing elections, she had one worry.

After all, she'd had some pretty interesting gigs in the past, notably as one of the county commissioners elected years after a scandal that sent a few of them to jail in the '80s.

"My biggest concern was I was going to be bored," she says, remembering.

"I am not," she says, "bored."

Openness arrives at Hillsborough County elections office 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 11:35pm]
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