When John Druzbick began his quest for the Hernando County Commission in 2007, his first campaign contribution check came from Coastal Engineering Associates for $250. Before winning the seat 15 months later, Coastal or its patriarch contributed three more times. The company also donated to Druzbick's 2012 re-election campaign.
So why are we not surprised that Druzbick and a unanimous commission — with no public explanation — overruled its professional staff and picked a political benefactor as the company it wants to help handle a utility project?
The decision is the first under a new purchasing policy that allows the commission to more easily steer contracts for professional services to favored local companies/political contributors. On May 8, the commission did just that and ranked Coastal Engineering of Brooksville as its preferred vendor to facilitate installing 3 linear miles of water lines as part of the expanded County Line Road between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41.
The county's professional staff had reviewed company qualifications and ranked an Ocala-based firm, that had done utility work along State Road 50 through Hernando County, as its top choice.
Only Commissioner Jeff Stabins recognized the potential for unsavory political back-scratching, telling Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt he didn't favor the new selection process because, "We don't need to inject politics into it."
No kidding. Though all five commissioners ranked Coastal at the top of the three-firm short-list, this maneuvering is the handiwork of Druzbick. He made the motion last month to deviate from the staff recommendations and for the commission to hear companies' presentations. Previously, if commissioners disagreed with a staff recommended professional services contractor, all vendors were tossed out and the process began again. Not this time. Commissioners pointed to a looming state deadline just five weeks away as a rationalization. If meeting that deadline is so imperative, perhaps Druzbick can explain his decision to ask for the two-week delay to bypass the staff recommendation.
Commissioners have made no secret of a desire to try to keep more government spending within Hernando County, where the economy is still staggering from the housing bust. But overruling the professional staff simply because of the applicants' home addresses (and open checkbook during campaign season) invites abuse and potential reluctance from companies outside Hernando to bid. That can drive up prices and cost the public more than it should.
In essence, commissioners have said they don't trust their own staff to complete due diligence on request for proposals from professional-service providers. It is unfortunate because political favoritism and patronage shouldn't be on the county government's qualification list.