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BAD BUSINESS // THE DISTRICT'S GOOD GRACES

In December, local businessman Robert Zontini threw a Christmas party for his best customers.

He invited 100 people, ordered up a $500 roast beef dinner and wrote a $200 check to his top client _ the Citrus County School Board.

It was a small token of appreciation. After all, the school officials in attendance helped send nearly $370,000 of the district's money to Zontini over the past five years _ most of it without the benefit of competitive bidding.

School officials say the Christmas party at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute in no way affected their buying decisions. Still, they have sworn off any such events in the future.

"I don't want people to think I'm being bribed with a $5 meal," said Steve Kinard, director of the vo-tech and the man who sent Zontini thousands of dollars of business the past few years. "I don't want that perception out there."

In a bigger place, at a bigger school district, the question of favoritism might not ever arise. But in Citrus County, it is nearly inevitable. Many of the district's top local vendors have friends or relatives working for the school district, the county's largest employer.

But those close ties make it even more important for School Board officials to make sure their transactions are aboveboard and by the book, state officials say.

Even the hint of favoritism is enough to cause a breach in public trust, said Buddy Barker, head of the state purchasing division.

"Whether or not that's true, it's the appearance," Barker said.

Consider these connections:

Walt Connors, by far the biggest office supply seller to the school system, came to the county 40 years ago to coach the Citrus High football team. He's a stalwart Democrat who gives regularly to the party, including the campaigns of former Superintendent Carl Austin. Many of his relatives, including two children, work for the school district.

Robert Zontini is the district's biggest local computer vendor. He came to Citrus in 1987 to join former business partner Gene Barbour, a school district support staffer who introduced him to David Langer, former chairman of the School Board. Zontini is also on the first page of a list of donors to Austin's last fund-raising party.

Superintendent James Hughes said he is worried about the perception that favoritism plays a role in school purchasing decisions. But, he stresses that he has found no evidence it does.

In fact, school officials say they do business with Connors because his office supply store is convenient and his service excellent. Other officials say they buy from Zontini because he offers a good product at a good price and backs it up with prompt service.

"It's very important that we clearly follow the rules," Hughes said. "We're entrusted to make decisions. . . . There is a perception that can occur probably in any school district, but especially in a small district."

Still, some School Board members say more must be done to maintain public confidence.

"We need to be careful about accepting gifts and going to parties if you're in a position to make purchasing decisions," said School Board member David Watson. "That's a whole area that we don't do a very good job at."

Connors, whose various companies have done nearly $2-million in business with the school district over the past five years, acknowledges that such relations make it look as if his connections play a role in his success.

He even admits that favoritism might be responsible for some of his business. But, he says, it's hard to avoid doing business with people you know in a county as small as Citrus.

What's more, it's not necessarily wrong.

"I know a lot of people because I make a point to know a lot of people," Connors said. "I know a lot of people in the school system, and I think they know me."

Still, the ties make incidents like Zontini's Christmas luncheon all the more suspect. Zontini also sponsored a pizza party last year for vo-tech officials, and has donated money to school programs.

He says his gifts are no more than good business practice.

"I don't see it as buying influence," Zontini said of the party at Withlacoochee Technical Institute. "I don't think anybody in that school system would take a nickel. And as a businessman I wouldn't offer one."

School Board members are still worried.

"Your discoveries confirm a lot of rumors I've heard over the years we do have a problem with favoritism. That word has surfaced many times," board member Sheila Whitelaw said.

Some people in the public perceive, she said, that it's "not what you know, but who you know."

Gary Duvall, owner of AGS Systems in Homosassa Springs, echoed a common complaint. He said he has tried to get School Board business in the past, but was turned away by district officials who said they already had a computer supplier.

"I knew what was going on," Duvall said. "The favoritism is there. It's who can kiss up to who the best."

School Board Chairman Mark Stone said that it can be understood from one's own personal life that you tend to do business with the same gasoline station and the same grocery all of the time.

"That's what you have had in the school system. It's a lot nicer to deal with someone you know. It's a comfortable situation," he said. "But we have to start evolving away from that so that we can be sure we're getting the best deal."

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