Commissioners have no regrets

Published Nov. 19, 2000|Updated Sep. 28, 2005

In two days, Mills, Novy and Sullivan will leave office. Though their tenure was marked by contention, they say they fought for the issues they cared about.

For four years, they battled, bickered and badgered one another as strong-willed county commissioners with different visions for Hernando's future.

Unanimous votes came infrequently, and slim majorities shifted regularly depending on the matter at hand.

At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Bobbi Mills, Pat Novy and Paul Sullivan officially will part ways as their terms end, leaving colleagues Chris Kingsley and Nancy Robinson to greet their replacements 8{ hours later.

As of last week, the outgoing commissioners had not lined up jobs or made hard and fast decisions about whether to seek public office again. And though voters unceremoniously dumped them in primary elections, they harbored no regrets about their tenures.

"The things I wanted to push, I pushed as hard as I could," Mills said, reflecting as she took a break from emptying her office. "The things I was against, I voiced my opinion as loud as I could. I don't think there was anything I would do differently."

Sullivan said he, too, would not have changed any of his votes, regardless of the reactions they drew from the public.

"My opponents often said that I was arrogant and detached," he said in his cleared-out office to complete the final few documents that required his signature as chairman.

"My goal was always to serve with professionalism and dignity. Some people confuse that with arrogance."

Novy refused to comment for this story, saying she had too many meetings to attend. She also said the St. Petersburg Times over time had ignored issues important to her, so she saw no need to talk to the newspaper.

In four years, the commissioners tackled several tough issues, from cement plant expansion to a billboard ban. They initiated a program to repair and repave residential roads, created a public-private economic development organization and set compatibility standards for new home construction.

And they disagreed. A lot.

From little things, such as the appointment of Novy as commission second vice chairwoman in 1997, to bigger things, such as the performance of former County Administrator Bonnie Dyga, the commissioners often found themselves in dispute.

They lacked unanimity on the aborted idea to bring a federal prison to Spring Hill last spring, an ordinance to remove large fishing boats from residential areas in 1999, and many times even on their consent agenda, which is so named because of its supposedly uncontroversial contents.

Challengers in this year's commission races cited this discord as a motivator to send the incumbents packing. Mills said she hoped the new commissioners will not gravitate to routine unanimous votes simply to gratify the public's seeming desire for "warm and fuzzy feelings on the board."

"Any talking or any decisions have to be made in the board room, where you have to be very politically correct because (a reporter) is down there taking down every word," Mills said. "If I've got a difference of opinion, I've got to discuss it in the board room. I don't think there was any infighting."

She considers her four years successful, from helping individuals get vacant lots and medians mowed to successfully fending off Wackenhut's proposal for a prison near Anderson Snow Park.

Mills held the commission's feet to the fire on demanding accountability from the Economic Development Commission, led the county's two-year effort to fend off lawsuits by the modular home industry and fought to keep spending down _ even when it meant opposing higher salaries for qualified job candidates.

"I don't think any were more important than another," Mills said of her efforts as a commissioner.

If she had a disappointment, it came with the extension of part of the county-imposed gas tax last year.

"When a government board makes a promise to all the taxpayers that they're going to do something and then doesn't fulfill it, that irritates me," Mills said. "We promised a gas tax for five years. Then they turned around and kept a portion of it forever. We lied to the public about that, big time."

Overall, Mills said, her tenure proved fun, exciting and stressful.

"I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to be able to do it," she said. "How many people can actually have a say in the way their county is run? That's an awesome privilege to have."

She had applied for a county job but pulled her application after reconsideration. It seemed inappropriate to seek employment with the county while still on the board, Mills said, adding that she planned to "putter around" until she decides what to do next.

To the new commissioners, Mills offered the advice she got when she joined the board: Think before voting, and vote your conscience.

"I hope every decision they make is not just because it seems like the right thing to do, that they investigate all the angles," she said. "Every idea sounds so good when you have a presenter . . . but when you visit the repercussions, that's what makes the decision-making so difficult."

Throughout his tenure, Sullivan tried to govern by the same rule. In the end, he still considered it the right way to lead but said it also seemed to backfire during his re-election bid.

"When I first ran for office, I said I was going to serve in this office as if I was a one-termer, so when I made decisions they would not be based on politics," he said. "What I find . . . is that (residents) weren't looking for that. The bitter taste of truth turned people off. I have a very difficult time rationalizing that."

Among his accomplishments, Sullivan prodded the commission to lower the property-tax rate and attempted to increase salaries for low-level county employees. He promoted the new billboard ban and tried to reduce other forms of what he called "visual blight."

"I'm very proud of the fact that, whether it's the sign ordinance or the communication towers or the billboard ordinance, I was a leader in protecting property values and controlling visual blight, which can be a problem when you have growth like we have," Sullivan said.

As chairman, Sullivan also whittled commission meetings from marathon sessions to more manageable lengths, with only one debate lasting past his preferred 6 p.m. adjournment time.

The "saddest time" of his four years was marked by the disputes that led to Dyga's departure in 1999 after only 18 months on the job.

"I personally thought that she was doing a good job," he said. "She brought vision and she brought change . . . As far as I was concerned, the arguments against her were based not on fact but on personality."

With Dyga gone, Sullivan said, he was pleased with the performance of her replacement, Paul McIntosh. He also praised the county's first full-time attorney, Garth Coller.

Asked how he thought the commission would be remembered, he suggested the lasting mark would be one of disagreement.

"It was not a team," Sullivan said. "There were five very strong personalities who had their own agendas, and most of the time a bare majority was able to accomplish things."

The new commission faces several big issues, he said, most important among them figuring out how to pay for increased demand for services as the county grows.

"It can succeed with time," Sullivan said of the commission. "But it's going to require a lot of patience" on the part of Robinson and Kingsley.

Sullivan, who worked in the county Utilities Department before he was elected, applied for several county jobs but did not win any of them. He said he cannot afford to retire and is still looking for work. As an elected official, he does not qualify for state unemployment insurance, according to Florida law.

He planned to stay involved in community activities and had not decided whether to run again for office. "It all depends on whether I enjoy the so-called civilian life," he said.

Of the three, Novy seemed most unwilling to recognize that her tenure has come to an end. With less than a week to go in her term, her office remained filled with eight years' worth of collected papers, and she continued to meet with people she still called "constituents."

After Mills and Sullivan made their farewells during their final commission meeting, getting flowers and plaques from Kingsley and Robinson, Novy spent 20 minutes talking about the Wysong Dam and water conservation. The other commissioners had refused to place the item on the agenda for the past month.

County staff members wondered aloud whether Novy actually was aware that she had lost, a fact she acknowledged only once during meetings when she pushed to postpone items for the next group of commissioners who would have to deal with the fallout.

Over eight years, Novy had the most chances to make a lasting impression. She started out as a voice of the people, endorsed by many.

Yet aside from becoming known as the commissioner who would visit your home and listen to your problem, Novy championed few issues outside of protecting the county's water supply.

Rather, she gained more recognition for her regular disagreements with the county administration, her alliance with the anti-commission Good Government League and her penchant for videotaping events, which one time got her accused of trespassing at Florida Regional EMS property in 1995.

She called for secret audits, challenged staff recommendations with her own brand of research and refused to give up losing battles.

Even in her final meeting _ long after the state Department of Transportation rejected her preferred traffic solution for crossing U.S. 19 at River Country Drive _ Novy continued to oppose the alternative approved by the rest of the commission.

Few disputed Novy's dedication to the job, for which she worked long hours with boundless energy.

Yet in the end, Novy proved her own worst enemy, killing her chances for re-election by suing the county Canvassing Board over her primary election results.

Ultimately, Novy lost her bid for a third term, attacked as a malcontent rather than praised as a maverick.

During her campaign, she made few policy statements and could not win support on the commission for most of her projects or endeavors.

John Tenini, vice president of the Good Government League, called her loss "a damn shame" and said Novy was the hardest-working commissioner he had seen in 22 years.

Novy worked for United Parcel Service before joining the commission. If she had plans for the future, she was not sharing them.