Hernando County commissioners ride the political currents

Let's look at the political currents that might account for a curious discussion and vote at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

First, the vote had to do with the widening of Elgin Boulevard, which has become a prime exhibit for residents who think the county spends money like drunks on payday.

Hernando has already laid out $4.7 million for vacant lots and houses that will be torn down to make room for the planned four-lane road between Landover and Mariner boulevards. In many cases, the county agreed to boom-time sale prices in a depressed market.

"It has to be done,'' Commissioner David Russell said of the acquisitions, "but it's not been a pretty process.''

Who knows where concern about taxpayers' money ends and posturing begins. But, certainly, commissioners want to seem as disgusted with the expense as the rest of us.

So, that may have played into Tuesday's vote, even if the proposed payment, in the scope of a project that will cost more than $10 million, is so small as to seem almost symbolic: $23,755 for a change order to design a traffic signal at Elgin and Mariner.

Which brings us to the second factor: change orders.

Commissioners can't go wrong complaining about these amendments to county contracts. As far as symbols of free spending go, they are as potent as hired-gun lawyers and empty buses.

Commissioners John Druzbick and Jeff Stabins, who led the charge against this change order — and Chairwoman Rose Rocco, who voted with them — had to know this stance would make them look good.

Not that there's anything wrong with commissioners being on the lookout for companies trying to squeeze extra bucks from the county.

But that wasn't the case on Tuesday, said Russell, who along with Commissioner Jim Adkins voted against the motion to deny the order. The county will need to upgrade the signal, Russell said, and somebody must design it.

"To me, this was a slam dunk,'' he said. "I was rather incredulous there was a problem with this particular issue."

Judging from his stunned look, so was Department of Public Works director Charles Mixson, who had requested the order.

For years, Mixson has routinely asked for and received money for similar contract changes. In longevity and sway among commissioners, he was probably second among staffers only to Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings.

But the last 12 months have been rough on Mixson.

He was suspended after conflicts of interest in the county's pavement management program came to light.

A criminal investigation concluded that his department broke no laws in giving away surplus fill dirt to contractors, but it did turn up proof that workers had accepted hamburgers, pizza and even cash to buy lunch.

Then there are the ineptly managed projects to clean up the old DPW site in south Brooksville and dredge the Hernando Beach channel. It was clear all this has taken a toll on the credibility needed to effectively run a county department.

"I'm a little leery now of the information that comes from (Mixson) and his lieutenant,'' Stabins said Thursday, referring to assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton.

So, that was another one of the undercurrents, and Mixson has never looked so at sea.

Hernando County commissioners ride the political currents 05/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 6:24pm]

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