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Tumultuous run ends as Dyga resigns

Many say her conflicts with commissioners were a major factor in Bonnie Dyga quitting her post after only a year and a half.

In a move that stunned county government staffers, County Administrator Bonnie Dyga announced Wednesday she will resign effective Oct. 10, ending her sometimes tumultuous tenure after barely a year and a half in office.

Dyga said she had pondered leaving for "a long time" but decided to wait until projects such as the forthcoming budget were mostly finished.

"I worked hard to improve my relationships, and it really hasn't worked out," she said in an interview after distributing a one-page letter to visibly surprised county commissioners.

She wrote that forging successful policies depended on people working together, "which requires trust, respect, give and take, and consensus." She implied that those elements have been lacking on the County Commission.

Dyga has already lined up a new job as assistant city manager in Port St. Lucie, a city north of Palm Beach with a population of 83,000. Her salary has not been negotiated. A search for Dyga's successor is expected to last several months.

In her short time on the job, Hernando's first female county administrator has left an imprint on Hernando government: She reorganized the bureaucracy to improve efficiency, raised many workers' wages to bring them in line with those in other comparable counties and delivered slight cuts in property tax rates two years in a row.

But despite the accomplishments, she never clicked with two commissioners: Chairwoman Pat Novy and Bobbi Mills. Her relations with Novy reached a low in June, when a rumor spread that Novy wanted to fire her and when Novy publicly questioned Dyga's handling of county finances.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson said Mills and Novy are at least partly to blame for Dyga's quick departure.

"I think the commissioners who have micromanaged and overstepped their bounds certainly have some responsibility for this result," she said.

Dyga admitted to the St. Petersburg Times in June that she had considered stepping down but added, "Am I going to quit? No."

Still, she painted a bleak picture of working with commissioners.

"I never felt secure in this job," she said at the time. "I think it's a very harsh environment for an administrator. There is a lot of micromanagement."

In one indication of her insecurity, Dyga never bought a home, choosing instead to rent a house in Spring Hill.

To her supporters, Dyga was the kind of assertive, strong-willed leader Hernando County needed to cope with steady growth. To her detractors, she did not listen well enough to other views and was propelling the county too quickly ahead on some issues.

As the news of her decision spread, supportive commissioners and some county staffers offered one-word reactions such as "shocked," "devastated" and "dumbfounded." Commission watcher Janey Baldwin gasped upon hearing the news and wept when she embraced an equally tearful Dyga.

Dyga waited until noon to publicize the decision, cloaking her intentions all morning behind the usual joviality she exhibits on the dais. County Commission chambers were nearly empty.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson broke the heavy silence. "I really think you've done an outstanding job, Bonnie," she said in an emotion-choked voice.

Then it was Commissioner Paul Sullivan's turn. He repeated a comment made recently by state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite: "Bonnie Dyga is the best thing that's ever happened to the county."

After Commissioner Chris Kingsley thanked Dyga for helping him in his first term, Novy spoke up.

"I know we've had our differences, but I wish you all the best," she said.

"It truly has been my pleasure working here," Dyga replied. "You have a wonderful community and a wonderful staff. You need to support them."

"We do," Novy said.

Dyga came to Hernando with an aggressive style and more than 20 years of government experience, most recently as assistant administrator in Okeechobee County.

She suffered a number of setbacks in her new post. One example was her ill-fated attempt to persuade commissioners to double the gas tax to pay for road repairs.

She succeeded often, though, including in her push to reorganize county government. To make the administration run more smoothly, she cut the number of people reporting directly to her from 16 to four.

Many county employees saw pay raises last year thanks to a wage study pushed by Dyga. While the employees no doubt appreciated the extra money, Dyga had another motive: to make sure the county could recruit and keep qualified workers.

Though her $21-million road paving plan was rejected not long ago, Sullivan and Robinson credited her with pushing the commission to approve a long-term program of some sort. That is expected to happen during Tuesday's meeting.

For Dyga, the policy discussions sometimes proved less of a problem than personality conflicts, her supporters say. Even some department heads, used to the more laid-back style of former administrator Chuck Hetrick, chafed under the new regime.

"From the moment she arrived, there were commissioners and some staff who resented her being here, because she brought change, new ideas," said Sullivan, who said he was devastated by Dyga's announcement. "She's been fighting ever since. Until now."

Mills and Dyga never got along. Mills had openly acknowledged her desire to see Dyga go. In June, Mills said Dyga lied to her last year after a public works employee was summoned to Dyga's office because of complaints that her shorts were too short. Dyga said she does not remember the conversation. Mills could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Even Kingsley expressed displeasure with Dyga's performance, leading to speculation that a majority of commissioners might oust her. Kingsley said in June that he expected "marked improvement" from her soon. One of his complaints was Dyga's insistence that commissioners relay information to staff through her, as the county's chief executive officer.

It was Novy, though, who tangled most visibly with Dyga. Novy refused to meet with Dyga at any length, saying she was too busy. She frequently fired off critical memos, however.

In June, it was revealed that Novy had secretly asked a state legislative committee about a possible audit of county operations. Novy questioned Dyga's handling of $28-million, much of which was left over at the end of the 1997-98 budget year and was put in reserve by the commission in March.

Among Novy's questions was why that money could not be used to repave residential roads. The watchdog Good Government League joined Novy in raising questions about the status of the $28-million.

To Dyga, the comments amounted to an attack on her professional integrity. Clerk of Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, also mentioned in Novy's secret memo, felt the same way.

Some of Dyga's subordinates understood her frustration.

"When you work real hard and try to do the right thing and your integrity is attacked, it hurts," said Code Enforcement Director Frank McDowell III.

Deputy Administrator Dick Radacky described Dyga as a devoted employee who spent many evenings in the office.

"The only time she had a break was Friday night," he said. "And she took work home with her on the weekends. I don't even know when she had time to eat. Her life was this work."

Now the question is who will replace Dyga. Some of those in and around county government said Novy's style will make the search more difficult.

"I think the board is so unsettled right now, and with Pat Novy as chairman they're going to have a hard time finding a new administrator," Nicolai said. "There is no consensus, no teamwork."

But Novy said one of her jobs as commissioner is to criticize.

"I'm not here to go along with the flow and just do what somebody says," she said.

Still, she would not say whether she trusted Dyga. "That's not a fair question," she said. "We have differences. Trust isn't the word here."

Without elaborating, she objected to the pace at which Dyga had sought to achieve change.

"She was progressive, but sometimes we have to slow down a little bit," Novy said. "All the things we have done have been extremely good and progressive, but we need to slow down a tad."

Some of Dyga's critics said they wished her well but consider her exit an opportunity rather than a loss.

"A new administrator will be able to bring the board together," said Ray Erickson, president of the Good Government League.

Novy made a similar point.

"Changes are always opportunities, and you can make them good or bad."

DYGA TIMELINE

December 1997

County Commission hires new County Administrator Bonnie Dyga, then the assistant administrator in Okeechobee County, to replace Chuck Hetrick, whom commissioners fired in August. Commissioners say they want a stronger administrator to replace Hetrick. Dyga's salary is $77,600.

February 1998

Dyga recommends expanding a study of the effects of the Suncoast Parkway. The one originally proposed before she was hired lacked depth, Dyga says. Commission approves the new study.

March 1998

Dyga writes letter to Commissioner Pat Novy and other commissioners after Novy asks Richard Radacky, then the utility department director, to pump out a flooded neighborhood. Dyga's letter promises to resist "encroachments" on her responsibilities.

April 1998

Dyga serves on team that negotiates the lease with Health Management Associates Inc. to take over operations of Regional Healthcare, which filed for bankruptcy.

June 1998

Dyga proposes doubling the gas tax to pay for residential road repairs; commissioners reject her proposal.

July 1998

Following recommendations of a study, Dyga restructures county government by combining 16 departments into four "business centers" and also merges the Department of Public Works and the engineering office.

August 1998

Dyga calls for emergency hearing to discuss whether Grubbs Construction Co. violated its contract for residential road repairs by using an asphalt mix different from the one in the county's specifications. The county later drops the matter after being convinced that the wording of the specifications allowed Grubbs to use another mix.

September 1998

Dyga recommends a 1.5-percent decrease in the county property-tax rate. Commissioners go farther, slashing the rate by 2.1 percent. Dyga's initial probation ends; commission gives her a $2,000 raise to make her salary $79,600.

November 1998

Dyga finds a $2.5-million windfall in the Department of Public Works budget.

January 1999

Dyga asks for the power to hire and fire department heads; commissioners reject the proposal.

February 1999

Commissioners reverse themselves and grant Dyga the power to fire department heads "for cause." Dyga may hire department heads, but the decision must be ratified by commission.

March 1999

Deputy building official George Rodriguez is fired for doing work on his house without permits and having employees review the work. Rodriguez denies wrongdoing and appeals to the Personnel Advisory Board, which advises that the firing is not warranted. A month later, Dyga hires Rodriguez as a building inspector at a lower salary.

Dyga approves the use of a different paving method called "stress relief" to repair some residential roads, saying it would be 73 percent cheaper than rebuilding the roads.

April 1999

Dyga proposes raising the gas tax by 1 cent per gallon and extending a 3-cent gas tax from 2002 to 2009. She wants to borrow $24-million to pave roads in four years and build a new public works complex. Commissioners reject the proposal in May.

June 1999

Rumors circulate that commission Chairwoman Pat Novy is planning to call for a vote to remove Dyga. Novy denies the rumors; the vote never takes place.

Novy rearranges seating on County Commission dais to put Dyga at one end. Novy also secretly asks for a state audit of county operations.

Good Government League member Angelo Oliva hires a private investigator to look into Dyga's background and determine whether commissioners properly researched her background when they hired her.

July 1999

State tells Novy there is no need for an audit.

August 1999

Dyga resigns to take a job as assistant city manager of Port St. Lucie. Her departure date is set for Oct. 10.

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