The witch hunt is over. A state prosecutor says there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in Hernando County's rushed hiring of a dredge construction manager who was dismissed days later after the county learned of his arrest record, overstated qualifications and his company's unpaid county assessments.
The county was sloppy and broke its own purchasing rules, but there is no evidence Administrator David Hamilton acted in bad faith. Hamilton correctly accepted responsibility for this mess previously and promised the county won't short-cut hiring protocols again. It is the right response. His recommended hiring of contractor Gregory Jarque in April — and acquiescence from a commission majority — brought embarrassment all around and suspicions from at least one commissioner that Hamilton was motivated by a quid pro quo on behalf of his wife, Linda.
Yet evidence examined by prosecutors and an auditor for Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai showed that accusation from Commissioner Jeff Stabins to be baseless. It would be surprising if a federal review failed to reach the same conclusion. Nicolai's audit, however, did criticize Hamilton for circumventing normal hiring practices, a maneuver blessed by the commission on an emergency basis because of a looming deadline to finish the dredge of the Hernando Beach channel or risk losing $6 million in state funds.
Hamilton has acknowledged he recruited Jarque to the unadvertised position because Hamilton was familiar with Jarque's company's work at the nonprofit Arc Nature Coast training center and hurricane shelter, construction of which came in early and under budget. Hamilton's wife is a fundraiser for Arc, but e-mails and public records show no social or personal ties between the Hamiltons and Jarque.
Not included in the legal review is an examination of the motives of Hamilton's critics. Stabins has sought Hamilton's ouster over management issues while Nicolai, according to Stabins, also nudged commissioners to dismiss the administrator because of long-range budget waffling. They will have to find new, significantly more substantial reasons to continue their quests for a change in leadership. Or, they can accept that, even with this episode, Hamilton has outperformed his recent predecessors and has the confidence and support of a commission majority.
Jarque's short-lived county consulting job was to ride herd over the dredge contractor, BC Peabody, to ensure completion of the long-delayed channel dredge by the end of the year. BC Peabody president Bob Carpenter said last week the work will be completed by the Dec. 31 deadline. It is welcome news and the county needs to retain its focus on the imperative task at hand now that the finger-pointing is over.