State investigators may look into the county's dealings with a consultant. County attorneys say nothing is amiss, but other officials aren't so sure.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 2, 2002
BROOKSVILLE -- The State Attorney's Office public interest unit should decide by Friday whether to investigate allegations of purchasing irregularities within Hernando County government, says Ric Ridgway, chief assistant to State Attorney Brad King.
If it takes the case, which county commissioners referred for review, the unit would focus mainly on whether anyone in county government broke state laws, Ridgway said. County lawyers have insisted that nothing illegal took place in securing several small contracts with utilities consultant Hartman & Associates.
State lawyers might agree, and find no cause for action, Ridgway said. Such a discovery might not end it, though. If the unit believes something legal but inappropriate occurred in the deals, he said, it could refer such issues to other agencies, such as the Florida Commission on Ethics, for additional review.
Already, the state Attorney General's Office is considering whether to step into the mix. State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, has asked Attorney General Bob Butterworth to look into whether the county administration broke any state laws by issuing five related contracts, all $25,000 or less, to Hartman & Associates, or by using a job description written by Hartman to seek bids by companies including Hartman.
"It's been referred to our legislative office," spokesman Joe Bizarro said of Brown-Waite's inquiry. "It will be reviewed by them."
Much of the attention so far has gone to the contract splitting and the lifted job description. Much less has been paid to another question raised by the county purchasing and finance departments: Should the administration have sought bids for the five contracts?
The administration does not have to get bids for professional services contracts under $25,000, as long as each contract represents separate and distinct work. Less clear is whether it must get bids for nonprofessional consulting work under that cap.
That matters because the county legal department stated on May 24 that Hartman's work -- planning long-term water strategies -- did not represent "professional services" as defined by the state. Ordinary county purchasing policy then would seem to apply, the purchasing and finance directors contend, and the policy says nonprofessional services between $2,501 and $25,000 must have a minimum of three quotations.
The only exceptions would be if the purchasing director or county administrator designates a deal a "sole source item" or an emergency purchase.
County Administrator Paul McIntosh had agreed to terms on four of the five contracts by late April, without asking other companies for bids. He declared Hartman & Associates a "sole source" on June 4, in a two-sentence letter to purchasing director Jim Gantt.
"Please be advised that I have selected Hartman and Associates Inc. for some work with Hernando County due to specific expertise and personnel employed by that firm," McIntosh wrote.
He offered a more detailed explanation to Circuit Court Clerk Karen Nicolai two weeks later, after she also questioned the propriety of the contracts.
"Specific expertise," he wrote, meant that the company had worked "significantly more than any other firm" in Florida to develop the type of plan Hernando County needed. "Specific personnel," he added, meant that the company had hired two people who recently retired from Florida Water Services, which the county wanted to purchase.
"This expert knowledge cannot be replicated by other firms or individuals," McIntosh wrote. "Based upon the above two issues, Hartman and Associates is the only firm combining the specific expertise and personnel necessary to perform the services required by Hernando County."
County Attorney Garth Coller backed McIntosh's position in a written opinion Dec. 17.
The policy for purchasing nonprofessional services applies to department directors and managers only, and not to the administrator or himself, because of the way it is written, Coller stated. The policy specifically mentions directors and managers, he said, and "the specific mention of some imply the deliberate exclusion of others."
He further argued that commissioners had, through voice vote at a February meeting, affirmed a $25,000 blanket purchasing authority to the county administrator and attorney.
"It was, and still is, the opinion of this office, that it is the board's direction and intent to give those most senior positions discretionary authority based on their roles' unique needs," Coller wrote. "Additionally, both positions are specifically answerable directly to the board as their employees, and, therefore, that discretion was subject to automatic checks and balances."
Nicolai said she asked for such an opinion in the summer, when the contracts first caught her staff's attention, and never got it. She did not accept McIntosh's June "sole source" letter and insisted that the commission ratify the contracts, which she considered a violation of the state and county purchasing rules.
Commissioners provided that vote in August.
Nicolai said she still thinks the administration handled the contracts improperly, despite McIntosh's noble goal of protecting the county water supply. Her concerns, along with all the others, now rest in others' hands for final disposition.
- Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.