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Two officials should share heat for 'bad judgment'

By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

Chris Kingsley may have offered the understatement of the new year last week when he characterized the missteps of County Administrator Paul McIntosh as nothing more than "bad judgment." Kingsley used those words to defend McIntosh as other commissioners discussed the possibility of firing the beleaguered administrator.

McIntosh survived to be kicked around another day, and he has Kingsley, along with Commissioners Betty Whitehouse and Mary Aiken, to thank for that reprieve, however brief it may be.

But even though Kingsley grossly underplayed McIntosh's involvement in the controversy surrounding consultant Hartman & Associates, he hit the nail on the head when he reminded the other commissioners that County Attorney Garth Coller was just as liable as McIntosh for the spot the commission now finds itself in.

Coller, after all, is the one who:

Gave McIntosh the legal advice he needed to divide what probably should have been one contract with Hartman into four.

Gave a legal opinion to support McIntosh's request that the commission declare an emergency that allowed him to forgo normal purchasing procedures for hiring consultants. Some wonder whether such an emergency actually existed.

Failed to recognize that he compromised his client, the commission, by serving on a committee that selected Hartman to accomplish work in connection with the county's pursuit of a deal that involves the Florida Governmental Utilities Authority's purchase of Florida Water Services.

Became so involved in the largely secret dealings with Hartman that, without the specific instruction of the commission, he was meeting with members of the Orlando-based firm, which sometimes corresponded directly with Coller instead of McIntosh or franchise director Chuck Lewis.

Offered a frail opinion that the board's policy that governs the hiring of nonprofessional services applies only to directors and managers, and that neither he nor the county administrator fall into that category.

Despite that deep involvement and debatable legal advice, no other commissioners would join Kingsley in calling for Coller's contract to be shortened from three years to one, as they did for McIntosh. It remains unclear why they absolved Coller.

One theory goes that the commissioners actually believe Coller offered only the legal advice that McIntosh sought from him, and that the advice was objective and on target.

Another theory goes that Coller's advice may be suspect, but that his error(s) was isolated and coerced by McIntosh, and therefore undeserving of punishment.

Still another scenario has the commissioners acknowledging that Coller screwed up, but supporting him anyway because they do not want to risk pushing the county attorney out the door at the same time the county administrator is waiting to exit. They fear that void in leadership could prove overwhelming if their departures coincide.

Which theory is correct? Perhaps it's a combination of all three. But just as important as any of those possibilities is that the commissioners simply like Coller better than McIntosh, who has earned a reputation as being aloof and uncommunicative.

Coller shouldn't interpret the commission's refusal to reprimand him as a complete vote of confidence, though. The ones who are paying attention (at last count, four, none of whose initials are M.A.) know he has been helping put together this elusive "water game plan" from the very beginning, and months before commissioners were actually brought up to speed on it.

The commissioners also took note that Coller, like McIntosh, assumed a defensive position as soon as questions were raised about the Hartman contracts, tacitly aligning himself with the administrator. That posture caused some to wonder if Coller needed a reminder that he works for the board, not McIntosh.

All that being said, Coller is still only up to his neck in "bad judgment," as Kingsley so kindly put it, while McIntosh is up to his eyeballs.

How sad it is that we are forced to measure culpability in such small degrees on the fourth floor of the government complex these days.

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