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Point man for privatization efforts resigns

Bill Simon, hired by Gov. Jeb Bush two years ago to shore up his push to privatize much of state government, is returning to the private sector.

Simon, secretary of Florida's Department of Management Services, leaves the $116,000 post Jan. 31 to become senior vice president for global business development for Brinker International. The Dallas restaurant chain includes Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina and Maggiano's Little Italy.

"I am a firm believer in the concept of citizen service and that means at some point you leave," Simon, 45, said Tuesday. "I thought the hardest part would be deciding to leave the private sector to come here. I think the harder decision has been deciding it's time to go."

Simon, whose career included a previous stint in Dallas as vice president for marketing for Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc., said he and his wife, Tammy, want to make a move before their eldest son, who is 12, started high school. Simon was president for Diageo Southeast in Miami, a division of British liquor company Diageo, before joining state government in March 2003.

In Tallahassee, he quickly developed a reputation as a fair-minded bureaucrat with little patience for politics. It was a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Cynthia Henderson, whose aggressive push to privatize state government sparked criticism that she was too close to lobbyists.

Bush said he accepted Simon's resignation with regret. "It's hard to find someone of that talent who is willing to take the kind of pay cut he took to serve in government and bring innovative new approaches to his job," Bush said. "I'm very disappointed."

Bush has relied heavily on Simon to create a process to review privatization in response to criticism that some earlier efforts lacked analysis or preparation.

Simon's departure comes in the midst of the biggest public relations problem yet for Bush's privatization efforts.

Since October, state employees have increasingly complained of problems with paychecks and benefits since Convergys, a Cincinnati-based firm, took over the state's human resources system last year. The problems have prompted a handful of lawmakers to urge Simon to fire the company.

But Simon has refused, saying the problems with the People First system, while painful for individual employees, have been overstated.

Joni James can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or jjamessptimes.com.

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