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In road deal, panel opts for silence over debate

Silence is golden in the Pasco County Commission chambers. At least when it comes to scrutinizing a controversial road purchase, the performance of the county administrator or the role of the county's lobbyist/political bigwig in staff decisions.

The momentary pause of dead air Tuesday followed a recommendation from County Attorney Karla Stetter to reconsider a 3-week-old vote of confidence for County Administrator John Gallagher.

Forget it. You think the board majority or Gallagher wants that rehashed?

Besides, ignoring legal advice from Stetter is starting to become a trend.

The inaction prevented Commissioner Pat Mulieri from weighing in on Gallagher's job performance or from pointing out the problems with the county's purchase of Oakley Boulevard for $450,000, deficiencies first pointed out by Times reporter Jo Becker.

Mulieri abstained three weeks ago, saying she had questions about the deal. Research by Stetter showed Mulieri had to either demonstrate a conflict of interest or cast a vote. Mulieri said she would be prepared to vote Tuesday.

Except nobody else on the dais cared. They'd just as soon this thing went away quietly, particularly since political fund-raising buddy H. Clyde Hobby is involved.

For the record, Mulieri has confidence in Gallagher as Pasco County administrator, but not in his road-buying skills. She thinks the county botched the acquisition.

Notably, commissioners approved the deal in December 1996 without being told:

The road was in poor shape and engineers didn't know if it met county construction specifications.

The state Department of Transportation would require a frontage road, now estimated to cost $560,000, to ease concerns about traffic congestion on nearby State Road 54.

The Department of Environmental Protection had given the county more time to install sewer lines, and the county had other options for the installation.

Obtaining the right of way for sewer lines is the predominate reason Gallagher gives for buying the road.

What's not stated is that county water lobbyist and Democratic fund-raiser Hobby represented the sellers. Hobby collected a $25,000 fee at closing. The deal was sealed a month after Hobby helped commissioners Sylvia Young and David "Hap" Clark get re-elected.

Commission approval of the road purchase came via the consent agenda, the portion of commission meetings reserved for non-controversial items that are authorized with a single vote and without discussion.

It is the same maneuver used unsuccessfully last year when Hobby sought county blessing for a $15-million utility bond deal for one of his clients.

Tuesday, Mulieri did not comment on Hobby's role. But, in a written memo, she said she would support a general vote of confidence for Gallagher because of his actions over the past 16 years.

However, she said, she could not bless his performance in buying Oakley Boulevard because of the information withheld from the commission and because the acquisition is not a prudent investment for the county.

Mulieri is correct in her assessment. Gallagher, for the most part, has performed admirably during his tenure.

But even he is not immune to the influence of back-room politics that has become too routine since Young and Clark championed hiring Hobby as a $100,000-per-year lobbyist three years ago and allowed him to continue representing private clients before county government staff.

That is governing that needs lively public debate, not dead silence.