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Business as usual will not do in hiring county water lawyer

The last time Pasco County commissioners talked of hiring a water lawyer, the public got soaked.

That's not to say the legal team of H. Clyde Hobby and Fred Reeves didn't represent the county adequately. They should be competent for the roughly $1-million they received over three years. Reeves provided counsel at administrative hearings and did the contract work, while Hobby lobbied the governor and state lawmakers for legislative remedies to the overpumping that damaged Pasco's environment.

But their contributions are overshadowed by Hobby's cozy relationship with some commissioners that allowed high-rise apartment buildings to be built in coastal flood zones while escaping property tax payments; a one-of-a-kind county purchase of privately owned Oakley Boulevard for $450,000; and a failed bid to sneak through county blessing of a $15-million bond deal for a private utility.

Three commissioners still in office _ Sylvia Young, David "Hap" Clark Jr. and Ann Hildebrand _ must share this blame. The trio circumvented County Administrator John Gallagher to hire Hobby in 1995, turned a blind eye to his dealings with other clients that conflicted with the county's interests, and, in the cases of Young and Clark, readily accepted campaign contributions from Hobby associates. Clark even used Hobby as his personal attorney in a private dispute with state environmental regulators.

Hobby resigned in 1998, saying his work was done. His firm now works for Hillsborough County on water-related issues.

So, it is with understandable consternation the public must again consider the notion of the county hiring a team of water experts for legal and technical assistance, particularly with Clark, facing re-election this year, championing the idea. He made the ill-advised motion five years ago to rush through Hobby's hiring, then fashioned his political campaign on the overblown notion he was a fighter for Pasco's water interests.

Retaining water experts is not without merit. Pasco County must be prepared _ that's key, preparation, not panic _ as Tampa Bay Water moves forward with development of alternative water sources to reduce well field pumping here by nearly 40 percent during the next seven years. Commissioner Steve Simon, the county's newest delegate to the regional utility, is fearful no backup plan exists if Tampa Bay Water cannot meet its contractual obligations to cut pumping. He and other commissioners want to devise their own water strategy in the event that happens.

Hiring an in-house attorney rather than an outside firm is prudent as the initial step, and the county talked to one prospective hire Thursday. If the commission members want to ensure public faith in the entire process, they will delegate the selection to County Attorney Robert Sumner and await an appropriate recommendation before acting.

Doing otherwise signals that a commission majority still considers the public to be all wet.