Hernando commissioners will be asked to pull the plug on contract purchasing services Tuesday, an idea started to save money, but now ending to save face. • Terminating the agreement between the commission and Clerk of the Circuit Court Clerk Karen Nicolai is in everybody's best interest, County Administrator David Hamilton told commissioners last week. That may be true politically, but the timing is disconcerting. It comes just three weeks after commissioners agreed to continue the arrangement until June and occurs while substantial public works projects — repairs to the county-owned jail and dredging the Hernando Beach channel — are unsettled.
More to the point, it circumvents a potential legal challenge from community activist Janey Baldwin, who contends the contract violates the county's own rules requiring the commission to oversee the county's procurement officer.
Baldwin's assertions are just the latest in a string of controversies that eroded public confidence in the viability of the purchasing arrangement. The commission turned to Nicolai in the spring after its former purchasing director lost his job while on suspension for his handling of the county's jail contract with Corrections Corporation of America. Nicolai channeled much of the work on the jail and dredge to consultant Lisa Hammond.
There was little discord until late September when Commissioner Jeff Stabins grilled Hammond over the timing of engineering report detailing expensive jail repairs and renovations. It started a series of controversies that included:
• Nicolai offering a full-time job to Hammond for an unadvertised position paying $105,000 annually. By mutual agreement, Nicolai rescinded the job offer days later amid a public outcry.
• That decision came after Hammond's stated credentials wilted under scrutiny from journalists who reported on discrepancies that included a doctorate degree from a closed diploma mill.
• A rush to circumvent standard procedures and award a nearly $9 million no-bid contract to a dredging team whose subcontractors included a company that left a similar job before completion in North Carolina and a local firm owned by a bankrupt road builder slow to pay its county property taxes.
• Continued criticism from ex-Commissioner Rose Rocco asking for accountability in the failed due diligence in that deal.
Rocco's earlier complaints clearly were campaign gambits amid her unsuccessful re-election effort, but Baldwin's contentions, and her willingness to bankroll a court fight if necessary, shows people with no ax to grind also find the whole deal unseemly. Had Baldwin proceeded with seeking an injunction, it would have put commissioners in the awkward position of defending an arrangement some of them also question.
Tuesday, commissioners will be asked to give Nicolai 60 days' notice, approve new job descriptions for a purchasing agent and contract monitor so the vacancy can be advertised, and approve a reorganization that will give oversight of those employees to the human resources manager. She will assume the new title of director of administrative services without a pay increase.
Certainly that will ease a political headache — most notably for Nicolai for not vetting Hammond sufficiently — but it brings no guarantees the dredge will be completed any faster or the jail will be repaired in a more affordable manner. That makes it incumbent upon commissioners and county staff to ride herd on these complicated public works projects, particularly the interminable dredge that has been languishing for nearly two decades.
If the commission chooses to act in everyone's best interests, it must ensure the public's interest is at the very top of the list.