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Economic group insults taxpayers

Is it just me, or is the fledgling Hernando County Economic Development Commission becoming more impertinent with each passing day?

The group, an experimental partnership run by private business people who rely mostly on public funding, replaces the short-lived Industrial Development Authority, which replaced the county Economic Development Department. That county-run department has been in abeyance since it was gutted more than a year ago to trim the county budget. Since then, the county has had no focused economic development program.

The delays can be attributed largely to the fact that it took the private business people an extraordinary amount of time to decide who would serve on the 14-member commission, and under what rules they would operate. Further delays occurred when the County Commissioners, who allegedly have oversight of the EDC, dared to ask some questions about accountability and funding.

There is one other reason the group's progress has been delayed. The EDC has been trying to hire an executive director. After launching a nationwide search, they narrowed the list to two candidates and have been in protracted negotiations with one of the men since at least June.

Last week, the EDC appealed to the County Commission to approve its $244,000 annual budget. The commission, after haggling with the EDC over who would pay the salary of Sue Rupe, the county's tourism coordinator, voted 3-2 to give the EDC the money it requested.

I'm not surprised the commission approved the EDC's budget; that has been the plan all along. However, I'm amazed the commission did so without knowing exactly how and on whom the taxpayers' money is going to be spent, or whether the EDC is going to keep its promise to raise private funds for economic development.

The EDC's leadership has repeatedly refused to release the name of the person they are negotiating with for the executive director's job, acting as if it's some sort of big, dark truth that only certain people can handle. In fact, it has been reported in at least one other publication. And, for weeks before that, it was common knowledge around most of the business community's water coolers.

But no one from the EDC will confirm the man's name on the record, so it hasn't been printed in the Times yet.

Although I think his name should be a matter of public record, it hasn't been that hard to tolerate the EDC's secrecy regarding what amounts to a personnel issue.

But my tolerance for the EDC's cliquish, uncommunicative behavior reached its limit Tuesday when EDC Chairman John Wickert refused to tell a Times reporter how much the executive director would be paid, other than a previously stated range of $45,000 to $63,000.

This person _ if he ever signs a contract _ will be paid with money all of us have given to the county by obediently paying our property taxes. For the EDC to presume it can withhold that type of fundamental, benign information is arrogant and insults the residents of Hernando County.

Three of the county commissioners need to agree now that the EDC has to be more forthcoming with information about how and where our tax money is being spent. That point needs to be driven home now, before the new guy comes on board and before the EDC becomes more inured in its closed-mouth ways.

Hernando County needs to emphasize economic development, and as a resident who wants to see the county grow at a reasonable pace with well-managed plans, I fully support efforts to lure business, create jobs and strengthen the tax base.

However, I reserve the right to withdraw that support when the show is being run by a group that has shown blatant disregard for the people's right to know and that has insulated itself from substantial accountability.

By the way, the name of the person the EDC has been interviewing for the executive director's job is Richard Michael. He lives in Seminole and has been a self-employed economic development consultant for two years. Before that, he was the assistant executive director of the Pinellas County Private Industry Council. From what I've heard, he's a pretty nice guy and a hard worker.

But don't tell anyone . . . it's a secret.