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A Times Editorial

Johnson leaves big mess, big questions

Buddy Johnson should be using the time between being voted out of office and the end of his term to create some sort of orderly transition for his successor, Phyllis Busansky. Instead, the Hillsborough County elections supervisor is spending his days making up crises and enemies and comparing himself to Harry Truman. The behavior is bizarre even for a man who twisted the elections office into the most secretive operation in county government. The county needs to audit Johnson and provide Busansky with the support she needs to take over in January.

Johnson asked the County Commission last week for $2.3-million in emergency funding. He said the money was needed to pay unanticipated costs of the 2008 election. But the nature of those costs are unclear. As has usually been the case in his five-year tenure, Johnson withheld any rationale for the money and did not make himself available to answer questions. He even blew off the commission meeting. The commission rejected his request and ordered that he be audited.

The county made the right move. There was nothing in the transition from touch screen to optical scan voting machines that should require a one-third increase in the supervisor's budget. The public already knows that Johnson dragged his feet buying new machines. His training and management was so poor that Hillsborough was among the worst performers this year of all the state's 67 counties. An audit should examine not only the basis for the $2.3-million request, but the spending that allegedly put Johnson over budget. There certainly was no evidence at the polls that Johnson wisely spent public money.

The auditors need to bring Johnson's spending practices into the sunshine. Among his requests for emergency funds was $300,000 for "transition" costs and nearly $1-million for temporary help, overtime and benefits. Busansky said she had no idea why Johnson wanted transition money. The pay for personnel does not make sense, either. Johnson maintained throughout the fall that he had a grip on the election. Auditors need to look at the assumptions Johnson and his staff made and determine how they erred so grossly.

It is worth remembering that Johnson bragged this summer, in the run-up to his re-election campaign, that he had cut his office's spending. He boasted on his campaign Web site that "innovative approaches" had helped shave 10 percent off the budget. In a May 28 press release, Johnson's office claimed that internal changes had pared 9.7 percent off the 2008-09 budget. Now that the election is over, he is crying broke. Also in May, Johnson took over control of his office's payroll, contracts and other financial functions from the clerk of the circuit court, an outside overseer. Busansky said she will return those duties to the clerk. But the auditors need to determine what Johnson did with the finances in the interim.

Johnson lashed back at the county Friday and said he was withdrawing his request. If that is a signal he will not cooperate with the audit, the commission should ignore him. It already has refused him the money. What the public needs is an accounting of Johnson's spending and policy decisions. Busansky also needs some sense of the size of the mess she will inherit.

Johnson leaves big mess, big questions 12/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 10:15am]
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