The County Commission unanimously approved a contract Tuesday with Williams, McCranie & Sutton, brushing aside questions about how the county's longtime external auditor edged out three competitors for the job.
A ranking worksheet was supposed to give extra points to new auditors who would bring a fresh set of eyes to the county's books. Instead, the county's auditor for the past 15 years outranked three Gainesville firms that have not worked for the county before.
Three county officials skipped the part of the worksheet that would have given extra points to new firms, saying it unfairly penalized Williams, McCranie & Sutton, a firm that has done good work for the county.
The commissioners on Tuesday agreed.
"If you were the current auditor for the county, you were penalized 10 points," said commission Chairman Jim Fowler, who sat on the selection committee. "Someone you've never heard of before, someone who didn't know where Citrus County was, starts out 10 points ahead. . . . They should have equal footing, but that's not the way the form was drawn up."
"That's discrimination at its highest form, to penalize them up front," Commissioner Roger Batchelor added.
The three-year external auditing contract is worth up to $366,500.
Commissioner Vicki Phillips was absent from Tuesday's meeting.
Several county officials said the score sheets contained suggestions, not state requirements, for evaluating potential auditors.
Elections Supervisor Susan Gill, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and a representative for Tax Collector Janice Warren skipped the points for new auditors. Fowler, Clerk of Courts Betty Strifler and chief deputy Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley did not.
"It was really up to the committee as to how they wanted to evaluate," said Sarah Koser, finance director for the Clerk of Courts.
In skipping the points for new auditors, however, three county officials deviated from the selection criteria outlined in the county's "request for qualifications," the notice sent to auditors interested in the contract.
That deviation raised red flags with several local watchdogs, who questioned whether the rules were changed midstream to favor the current auditor.
Crystal River resident Sumner Waite said the firms should have been ranked according to the criteria listed in the "request for qualifications," the rules the auditors expected coming into the game.
"The procedure was scandalous," Waite said.
Homosassa activist Jim Bitter called for an auditor who could take a "fresh look" at the county's books. He said the county should not stay with Williams, McCranie & Sutton just because it has a comfortable relationship with the local firm.
"Hello, have we been reading anything about this in the headlines?" Bitter asked. "Does this smack of (Arthur) Andersen? Does this smack of Enron?"
But Commissioner Josh Wooten said the comparisons to corporate scandals were "grossly unfair." Williams, McCranie & Sutton has not done anything wrong, he said.
"I haven't heard anything other than speculation on the speakers' parts," Wooten said.
_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhallsptimes.com.