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Even fill dirt shouldn't be a freebie in Hernando County

When you're on the public dime, you shouldn't be looking for freebies, too. Unfortunately, that was the case in the Hernando County Department of Public Works where county auditors and criminal investigators documented public employees routinely swapping fill dirt for lunch money, free food and even sunglasses.

As detailed recently by Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt and John Frank, the audit and investigative reports showed the department lacked internal controls of surplus dirt. It was a commodity with enough value that the recipients of the free fill tipped county workers with hamburgers, pizza, soda and other goodies.

The Sheriff's Office concluded its investigation without filing charges, but the audit by the Circuit Court Clerk's office recommended adopting some common sense policies to control the transactions.

Public Works chief Charles Mixson defended his staff, telling reporters that supervisors, not the low-level employees, decided who received the dirt and said the department was grateful to have the free hauling service instead of paying for its removal.

Here's a better line of thinking: Treat fill dirt as if it is public, not personal property. It has obvious value. If not, explain the gratuities from the recipients. Public property must be used to benefit the public. If it's surplus, get something for it besides full stomachs for the work crews.

Public employees shouldn't be accepting freebies, no matter how small the value. That Mixson has to author a policy governing such matters is indicative of the lax controls at his department.

More to the point, the auditor's report was released nearly simultaneously with Times stories detailing the dual role played by a contract worker in Mixson's department. Bill Busch worked as the coordinator for the county's paving management program while soliciting work for Ohio-based KMS and Associates. That, too, is under criminal investigation.

Mixson claimed ignorance. But, other county officials are now recommending delaying a project to inspect and inventory road conditions because of Busch's roles writing the county's solicitation for the project while working for the low bidder, KMS.

Let's see. That is two criminal probes, a critical county audit and slowed public works projects because of conflicts in the department headed by Mixson. It is indicative of a prevailing culture of governing by acquaintance that puts public considerations secondary.

The culmination came Friday when County Administrator David Hamilton suspended Mixson for two weeks and put him on probation. Mixson is fortunate. Termination is more appropriate.

Just a short list of the department's other high-profile mismanagement includes the non-deredging project at Hernando Beach and the scene earlier in the week when Hamilton sidestepped Mixson to order long-promised-but-never-delivered drainage improvements to the flooded neighborhood near Wal-Mart.

Hamilton should be commended. Mixson should be ashamed.

Even fill dirt shouldn't be a freebie in Hernando County 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 4:36pm]
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