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Divided Hernando commission approves new economic development committee

Commissioners will appoint members with expertise in real estate, financial services, development, education and other fields.

BROOKSVILLE — After hearing from commissioners and community members who want more input into the county’s economic development efforts, a divided Hernando County Commission voted Tuesday to establish an advisory committee of business representatives for that purpose.

The same three commissioners who voted last year to oust economic development director and county administrator Len Sossamon -- Jeff Holcomb, John Allocco and John Mitten -- also voted to form the county’s Economic Development Technical Advisory Committee.

Commissioners Steve Champion and Wayne Dukes, who supported keeping Sossamon, noted no. They said they didn’t need another committee.

"I’m not in favor of unelected boards,'' Champion said, noting that he trusted Valerie Pianta, the current economic development director, to do the job.

"I don’t like committees,'' Dukes said.

Holcomb said he had been approached by people in the community who wanted to be involved. But he didn’t want the committee appointments to be long-term jobs, which was a criticism several years ago of the now-defunct Hernando County Aviation Authority.

John Mitten, voted in earlier Tuesday as this year’s commission chairman, asked Pianta if the committee would be helpful to her. She said it would. Members could meet with business leaders who may want to come to Hernando, talk about what the county can do to attract prospects and give banking, real estate or industry-related advice, she said.

Their purpose would not be about making recommendations to the County Commission, Pianta said. Despite the more informal arrangement, county Administrator Jeff Rogers told the Tampa Bay Times that the group would follow Florida Government in the Sunshine rules regarding open meetings and public records.

Economic development has been a flashpoint among Hernando County’s political factions in recent years. Sossamon was criticized for helping only friends with business arrangements and for not being a successful recruiter.

But Sossamon long pointed to the number of businesses that located in the area during his tenure and the number of retained jobs and expanding businesses.

When commissioners fired Sossamon last January, they were coming to grips with the county’s multi-million dollar financial shortfall. They decided to put their economic development manager, Pianta, into the lead role as director.

The intent of the committee is "to act in an advisory capacity to the county’s economic development staff,'' according to the backup materials for the commission meeting. Members will have input on "issues such as strategic planning, goal setting, prioritization, policies, programming, investments and incentives.''

The group will include seven to nine members, and commissioners will seek those with expertise in manufacturing and logistics, education, health care, real estate, financial services, construction and development, community-based organization and others.

"Diversity of expertise should be retained as much as possible,'' according to the policy that commissioners approved.

Commissioners will appoint the members, who will serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms. The first meeting is expected in March, and the group will meet at least four times a year.

County officials said they would immediately seek applicants for the various positions.