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    Pinellas deal with official collapses

    The county administrator fires Rick Dodge after an agreement to lend him to St. Petersburg College falls apart.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 10, 2002

    After a tense relationship with his new boss, Rick Dodge seemed assured of a smoother future. He would put that behind him and lead the startup of a business technology and training center, a cause near to his heart.

    Even Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt, who no longer wanted Dodge as one of his top managers, said getting the Epicenter running would be a perfect fit for Dodge, a man with decades of business connections in Pinellas County.

    The deal had been worked out by Dodge, Spratt and Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College.

    On Friday, it all fell apart. Kuttler withdrew his offer for Dodge to become a college employee. Spratt asked Dodge to resign, and then fired him Friday afternoon.

    Dodge couldn't be reached Friday for comment. But Spratt and Kuttler say he refused Thursday to sign a waiver agreement that he would not file a lawsuit against the county.

    Dodge had told Spratt on Tuesday that he agreed to resign, and planned to sign the agreement once his lawyers could work out the details with the county. Both Spratt and Kuttler thought it was just a technicality.

    "I didn't expect it," Kuttler said. "I didn't go through this, no pun intended, for an academic exercise. Also, I'm very saddened. I'm saddened for the college because of the loss, that we won't be able to have him. I also am saddened for all the parties, including him."

    Spratt was even more frustrated. He thought he had knitted together a workable compromise to the first crisis since he took the administrator's job last December.

    "This is very unfortunate," Spratt said. "We had an opportunity to wrap this up in a win-win situation. I'm seriously disappointed that it has to end this way."

    Spratt had proposed that Dodge resign from the county, where he was making $130,000 a year as an assistant county administrator until he was demoted last week.

    The plan: Dodge would become Epicenter project manager for the college for 15 months, making up to $115,000 a year running the $30-million joint county-college project. The county would give the college a "grant" equivalent to Dodge's salary. The 15-month time frame would allow Dodge to receive state retirement benefits.

    Last month, county commissioners agreed to "loan" Dodge to the college, still at his original salary, after reported tensions between Spratt and Dodge. Spratt demoted Dodge after controversy arose surrounding Dodge's offer of $2.5-million in county money to help a private development company. Commissioners never approved that deal and said they didn't know about it.

    Tuesday, Dodge told Spratt he agreed to the plan. He wrote a memo saying he was "prepared to execute this document" with two changes. One change was made immediately. The other was the waiver agreement. Dodge said he would not sign it "because it contains statements that are not valid." But he said he knew Spratt hadn't personally reviewed it, and suggested his lawyer meet with county lawyers to reach a "mutually acceptable document."

    Under the circumstances, the tone of Dodge's memo was relatively cordial. He even apologized to Spratt because the controversy interrupted Spratt's vacation.

    "You and your family deserve time away from the stress and strain of your job, and I know much of that time was lost responding to issues here at home," Dodge wrote.

    But when county lawyers met Thursday with Dodge's lawyer, Dodge had changed his mind about signing, Spratt said.

    That was too much for Kuttler. Friday afternoon, Kuttler said that when he heard reports that Dodge wanted to remain a county employee, it was a sign that Dodge wasn't ready for the "clean break" that Kuttler wanted.

    "The spirit of Mr. Dodge had to be that he was leaving behind everything and starting new here, whatever Mr. Spratt's issues or his issues . . . there was a mark in the sand," Kuttler said.

    Without that line, Kuttler said, and despite his respect for Dodge's "incredible" creative mind, he was unwilling to recommend the deal to his board.

    Spratt felt he had no other choice.

    "I've run out of other options," he said.

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