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Commission balks at Mariano's role in roadwork pitch

DADE CITY — A month after lamenting shortcomings in the county's purchasing rules, Pasco commissioners on Tuesday balked at a new proposal to pave a portion of Old Dixie Highway that was solicited by Commissioner Jack Mariano and submitted outside the county's bid guidelines.

Mariano's hands-on role in the matter drew a strong rebuke from other commissioners.

"This makes me nervous,'' said commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey. "I want to see Old Dixie paved, but I would like to follow proper procedure.''

The proposal from Asphalt Paving Systems of Zephyrhills called for spending $65,820 to pave Old Dixie Highway between Sea Ranch Drive and Clark Street, the southernmost segment of the road that parallels U.S. 19 and eventually leads to SunWest Park near Aripeka.

The company already is used by the county as an in-house paving contractor, and Mariano said the roadwork should be done because of the projected cost savings from the planned paving of a separate 1.25-mile segment of Old Dixie Highway that terminates at SunWest.

Last month, a commission majority delayed, then rejected awarding a contract for that paving project after learning low bidder B.R.W. Contracting Inc. of Land O'Lakes had been banned for working for a year in neighboring Hernando County because of performance issues. Commissioners also were uncomfortable that the company's former president had been convicted of perjury and its current chief executive officer went to prison in 2001 for defrauding the federal government on an Interstate 4 construction contract. At the time, commissioners said they needed to improve their bidding procedures so that public entity crimes are given greater consideration.

The low bid on that project was just under $1.2 million, or significantly less than the county estimated, Mariano said, which is why he pushed for Asphalt Paving to proceed on the southern portion of the road.

''This is an opportunity because the bids are so low to improve the roads of west Pasco,'' he argued.

The company's cost estimate appeared on the commission's agenda Tuesday at Mariano's request, without a normal cover memorandum from the county staff and with no recommendation on how to proceed.

Mariano's personal involvement raised multiple red flags from the dais.

"You need to be careful,'' County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said. "It's really in the administrator's purview to go out and price out a contract. Any commissioner, when you move into the area of performing an administrative function, which is not in your policy role, and if something were to go badly, you have some liability there as an individual.''

In the future, Steinsnyder advised, "I would encourage all of you not to go down this path.''

Mariano's fellow commissioners were even more blunt.

"I'm concerned when we personally pick out a vendor and bring them out to a project,'' Starkey said. "I think that's a line that shouldn't be crossed.''

"This needs to come back as a full agenda item so we're not interfering with the purchasing process, which is exactly what you're doing,'' Commissioner Ted Schrader told Mariano.

Schrader also said the project should be considered amid the list of other local roads scheduled for county maintenance because "every district, obviously, has roads that need to be addressed.''

Mariano eventually acquiesced to turning the matter over to the county staff.

"I'm comfortable any way staff wants to go,'' he said.

The proposal is expected to be considered at a future commission meeting.