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Board decision sound, but where's outrage

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Wednesday was the first day of spring, but the Hernando County Commission began cleaning house a day early when it finally hauled County Administrator Paul McIntosh to the curb.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Chris Kingsley and Betty Whitehouse reached the conclusion Nancy Robinson and Diane Rowden had weeks ago, and voted to give McIntosh his walking papers, which includes some serious get-lost money. If McIntosh, whose annual pay was about $101,000, takes full advantage of the severance package the commission agreed to, he'll rake in $65,000 on his way out the door.

But the commission gave McIntosh something more valuable than money.

They gave in.

Instead of holding McIntosh to his contract, which would pay him salary and benefits for four months, the commission caved in to his demand _ make that threat _ to extend that severance to six months, and to be reimbursed for his high-priced attorney's fees. In exchange for the commission's favorable response, McIntosh agreed not to sue the county.

The commission's cooperation implies that it believed McIntosh had a case. Yet, the only possibilities cited by the legal staff were that McIntosh might claim the county wrongfully breached his contract, or that when the board renegotiated his contract in January and reduced his severance package, McIntosh did so "under duress," or that he suffered some unspecified emotional distress.

Take a quick look at those concerns.

First, a contract is a contract. It's there to protect both parties. Besides, the commission did not need a reason to exercise its option to buy him out.

Second, how could McIntosh allege he was under duress to renegotiate the severance clause of his contract, when he volunteered to shorten it? He brought up the idea and used it, quite effectively, to persuade the commissioners not to let him go 2{ months ago. It was a calculated risk, and it would have worked to his advantage, had his fondness for freebies not been revealed.

Finally, as for the possibility that he suffered emotional distress, two words come to mind: Who cares? McIntosh's distress couldn't have been any worse than that endured by the commissioners or certain county employees who found themselves on the wrong side of the administrator and his toady clique of department managers.

Entirely missing from Tuesday's discussions leading to the dismissal of McIntosh was any assertion by the commissioners that what McIntosh did was improper. No one, other than an assistant county attorney, commented on the fact that McIntosh admitted to a Times reporter last week that he had accepted not only free rounds of golf, but also tickets to baseball and football games, all from people who had business with the board.

The opportunity was ripe for the commissioners to use McIntosh as an example of how not to recast their muddled policy about accepting gifts. Instead, they remain focused on adopting a policy that mirrors the much-too-forgiving state law.

Even those commissioners who are on the verge of embracing the simplest and most equitable approach _ never accept anything _ are being filled with doubt by County Attorney Garth Coller, who declares, as McIntosh did, that such a rule is impossible to enforce.

Poppycock! Of course, it can be enforced. It requires only for the commissioners and county administrator to lead by example and for employees to be educated about the intent and practical application of the rule.

Maybe the commissioners didn't bother to scold McIntosh on Tuesday because they felt that losing his job was punishment enough.

Maybe they did not elaborate because they were afraid McIntosh and his high-profile attorney would make good on their tacit threat to sue.

But maybe the commissioners didn't say anything because, deep down, they still don't believe what he did was wrong.

If that third possibility is on the mark, Hernando County voters should dust off their brooms and be prepared to do a little spring cleaning themselves. There's no telling what might have been swept under the rug.