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Breach of trust

When Rick Dodge was named Pinellas County's new economic development director in 1997, most observers expected him to bring a needed professionalism to the job, and Dodge has had his successes. But he has also displayed a loner mentality that is inappropriate to public service, making key decisions without consulting others and failing to keep his bosses and county residents informed on important issues. That behavior has finally caught up with Dodge.

Echelon Development recently notified County Administrator Steve Spratt that it expects the county to give the company $2.5-million for one of its projects in the Carillon office park. "We reiterate our previous request for the $2.5mm earmarked by Pinellas County to help defray the cost of the common area infrastructure supporting Carillon Town Center," Echelon vice president Julio Maggi said in a letter to Spratt. The request came as a surprise to Spratt.

So who committed millions of public dollars to a private development project? Rick Dodge did, and in a memo to Spratt, Dodge claims that former County Administrator Fred Marquis and "each member of the County Commission" approved of the expenditure. That is contrary to the memories of Marquis and the commissioners, however, and if it were true, doing such business in private would be a violation of the state's open government laws.

Dodge told a different story to Times staff writer Lisa Greene, claiming he had not committed the money to Echelon, but a letter from Dodge to Echelon chairman Darryl LeClair indicates otherwise. Dodge refers to "the county's previous commitment of $2.5-million for infrastructure improvements. . ." in the letter.

Only the County Commission can approve such expenditures. And some commissioners say they have been embarrassed by Dodge. Spending tax dollars on a private development project would set a precedent that would be difficult to uphold.

This wouldn't be the first time Dodge was accused of playing fast and loose with development deals and failing to keep others informed. Such behavior might be expected in the corporate world, but Dodge is a public employee who is spending tax dollars. Before the recent embarrassment, Dodge's antics had already put him at odds with Spratt, his boss after Marquis retired. Spratt recently allowed Dodge to leave his post temporarily to work for St. Petersburg College as it opens the new Epicenter, a high-tech training facility. A county administrator isn't likely to let a trusted administrator moonlight on another job.

Even Dodge's most loyal supporters believe he has made a serious error. County Commissioner Bob Stewart had worked with Dodge in St. Petersburg, as the city successfully brought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to town, and recommended him for the county job. Dodge has "a brilliant mind," Stewart said, but his behavior "would tax all of us." As for Dodge's promise to Echelon, Stewart said, "clearly this would not be acceptable at any level."

Spratt is determining how to respond to the current controversy, which puts the county's reputation at risk no matter what is done. There is another reputation at stake: Dodge's. It is difficult to see how Spratt or county commissioners could continue to trust Dodge to represent Pinellas County.