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Manager of water agency calls it quits

The head of Tampa Bay's largest public water supplier resigned Wednesday, effective April 1.

Harold Aiken, general manager of West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, tendered his resignation one day after state water regulators had alleged a sweeping array of environmental problems linked to the authority's operations.

And while Aiken probably had the support of a majority of the five member governments that compose the water authority, his resignation comes just one week after Pinellas County Commissioner and water board member Charles Rainey called for his dismissal.

Aiken leaves a senior staff already in turmoil. West Coast's general counsel left in December and a replacement has not been found. The senior environmental planner resigned last week.

"I'm very worried that there's nobody steering the boat right now," water authority Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand said Thursday. "We're standing at the crossroads of the life of West Coast, and I'm really, really worried about the fact that there is no leadership at all."

Hildebrand, a Pasco County commissioner as well as authority chair, was concerned: One way or another, West Coast likely will be spending many millions of dollars as it struggles to provide enough clean drinking water for more than 1.2-million people without destroying the surrounding environment.

According to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees the the water resource in 16 counties, West Coast is failing that task.

Swiftmud's governing board determined Tuesday that lakes, streams and wetlands in portions of Pasco and Hillsborough counties have disappeared largely because of overpumping of ground water by West Coast. The water is piped south to Tampa Bay's urbanized areas.

In addition to Pasco and Pinellas, the water authority's voting membership includes the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County.

Aiken could not be reached Thursday for comment. His letter of resignation, just three paragraphs long, reads in part:

"Although the job has been both challenging and rewarding, I reached a point in my career that required a reassessment of my future commitments to the job, as well as my family," Aiken wrote to Hildebrand.

"Realizing that the commitment to continue serving the community as your general manager must be without reservation, and not wanting to in any way to diminish the effectiveness of the agency, I have decided to tender my resignation April 1, 1994.

Aiken, 42, is a 15-year veteran of West Coast. He had worked at Swiftmud prior to the water authority.

He had headed the water authority for the last four years, but within the last year he had increasingly drawn the wrath of Rainey, a Pinellas political fixture of nearly 30 years.

Rainey is on a two-week trip to China and could not be reached for comment. But a single-spaced, three-page letter he fired off to Hildebrand on Feb. 23 detailed his displeasure with Aiken:

"Over the last year, several events have occurred demonstrating Mr. Aiken's lack of leadership. Mr. Aiken has not demonstrated sufficient control over the authority's assets and inventories."

On one important project, Rainey wrote, Aiken declared it ready to proceed even though it lacked a federal permit. Today, the project is still stalled.