Senate firings leave an ugly odor

TALLAHASSEE

A competent state worker is abruptly fired — kicked to the curb in the middle of a recession — and no one will explain why.

And they don't have to. You see, this is the Florida Senate, which essentially operates as a private club, with millions upon millions of our tax dollars.

A Senate that claims to be committed to "total transparency" in all of its budget decisions is anything but when it comes to the recent personnel purge by Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, the incoming president of the Senate.

After about a dozen firings, the bloodletting finally ended Thursday: "There are no more dismissals planned," Haridopolos said in a memo to senators.

The question is: Why was this necessary, and will the staffers who survived feel cowed? After all, Haridopolos early on said he was gunning for strong-willed staffers who behaved like "the 41st senator."

Julie Noble is among the casualties. She had been a staffer for more than a dozen years, and was Sen. Mike Fasano's right hand on the budget committee for transportation and economic development.

Noble, 51, was among the lowest-paid Senate staff directors, at $87,000 a year, and among the very few who is African-American. Her thin personnel file includes laudatory letters and pay raises from former Senate and House leaders Ken Pruitt, John Thrasher and Dan Webster.

"You couldn't ask for someone better," said Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who raved about Noble's loyalty, professionalism and work ethic.

We don't know what's prompting Haridopolos' personnel decisions, but we do know he's getting a lot of advice from Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who heads the Senate's black caucus.

"I've given my input, and he's taken it," Siplin said. "Those I've asked him to get rid of, he's gotten rid of."

Siplin wouldn't discuss names. He breaks with his party on key votes and has aligned himself with the GOP on the next remapping of legislative districts in 2012, meaning that when Republicans need an extra vote to pass something, they can count on Siplin.

Siplin filed a bill in the spring that would have imposed a new tax on malt liquor to fund a scholarship fund for at-risk students. He is a board member of a group that provides those scholarship opportunities.

His bill (SB 2224) died quietly, and a related bill (SB 2042) got a skeptical analysis from Ray Wilson, another longtime staffer recently let go. Siplin said the two things are not related and he likes Wilson.

Haridopolos says he's taken input from a lot of senators. Asked why Noble lost her job, he said, "I'm a very observant person," and that being courteous to senators is important.

Haridopolos is a college professor and fiscal conservative who appears to have higher political ambitions. It is the prerogative of a Senate president to hire and fire people, but the strength of the Legislature is rooted in its professional staff.

"The president has the ability to choose who he wants to work in his administration," Haridopolos says, noting Noble was offered to apply for other jobs.

With families and businesses being forced to make do with less, Haridopolos says the Senate should be no different. He claims he will save $1 million by requiring staffers to manage multiple committees, but it's worth wondering whether these changes will also cost the Senate some of its reputation as well.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Senate firings leave an ugly odor 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 7:33pm]

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