Hernando newsmakers shape a year of change
© St. Petersburg Times
In the past year, Hernando County has seen the passing of prominent figures, shakeups in political leadership, a battle over the fate of Florida Water Services and a sex scandal involving Spring Hill firefighters.
The Times has compiled a month-by-month review of many stories that shaped the year that was 2002.
Some stories wove their way through the entire year, while others still seem destined to keep going into 2003.
Among the most persistent stories:
The fall of County Administrator Paul McIntosh and the changes in the wake of his departure.
Maneuverings for the purchase of Florida Water Service by the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, and a move by two Panhandle towns that stunned the FGUA and quite a few Florida county and municipal leaders.
The stalemate between Brooksville Regional Hospital and Oak Hill Hospital, continuing their feud over Brooksville Regional's plans to put a new hospital closer to Oak Hill and Oak Hill's efforts to get an open-heart surgical facility.
The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District's bid for independence, and a sex scandal surrounding thr firefighters.
Neighbors railing against plans for affordable housing, taking their appeals as far as Gov. Jeb Bush.
For County Administrator Paul McIntosh, 2002 started badly, with revelations that consulting firm Hartman & Associates had submitted bills and completed work for the county before the company was even officially hired.
That and other complications led county commissioners finally to decide against hiring a consultant to help them determine the value of Florida Water Services.
The State Attorney's Office opened an investigation into the handling of the contracts. McIntosh scolded purchasing director Jim Gantt for not being a team player when he failed to support McIntosh's defense of the Hartman payments.
Chuck Lewis, director of the county's Regulatory and Franchise Administration Department, resigned after coming under fire for taking college bowl game tickets from Hartman & Associates while negotiating contract terms with the firm. Urged to reconsider, Lewis agreed to stay on despite the problems.
McIntosh narrowly avoided being fired by county commissioners for his actions with Hartman & Associates. Then commissioners learned McIntosh was in the running for the job of county administrator in Marion County.
Meanwhile, plans kept moving forward for the Florida Governmental Utility Authority's quest to buy the water network, with an offer of $515-million for Florida Water, which serves much of Spring Hill, as well as communities in Citrus County.
But ALLETE, the Minnesota owners of the utility, turned down the offer and decided to keep hearing from other suitors.
The woes of Hernando County's government continued.
McIntosh was back in the spotlight for possible violations of county and state gift policies by letting Hartman & Associates pay his entry fees for a golf tournament while the county did business with the firm.
Although a county attorney eventually found that McIntosh broke the rules, the violations were deemed not to be against the law.
The dysfunctional county Emergency Management Department, paralyzed by interpersonal clashes under director Bill Appleby, got 90 days to work out its problems through a conflict-resolution program.
For the school district, the news wasn't much better.
A state auditor general's report cited the Hernando school system for dwindling fiscal reserves in 2000-01. Particularly, the auditor pointed to a $1.2-million deficit in the district's rainy day fund.
The conflict continued between Brooksville Regional and Oak Hill hospitals. It had begun in 2001 when Brooksville Regional announced plans to move closer to Oak Hill on State Road 50.
But in late February, Brooksville Regional made a settlement offer: If Oak Hill ended its opposition to the new hospital on SR 50, then Brooksville would cease trying to hamstring Oak Hill's efforts to establish an open heart surgery program.
That offer went nowhere.
The FGUA, after suffering a membership shakeup, announced it was close to a deal on Florida Water Services, for a tentative sale price of $528-million.
Joseph Gatti, the Powell Middle School teacher who had faced sexual molestation allegations in 1996, won acquittal, then won back his job in 1998 through an administrative hearing.
Again, Gatti went before a judge: this time to fight against the state Department of Education's efforts to seize his teaching license.
A final ruling would not come immediately, but administrative law judge Diane Cleavinger clearly indicated her doubts about the state's case against Gatti.
It was a month of change.
Beleaguered Emergency Management Department director Bill Appleby resigned after 20 tumultuous months in command. Danny Roberts, also the county fire-rescue operations chief, stepped in as interim director, and hit it off with the staff.
It looked like County Administrator Paul McIntosh might be fired, but commissioners relented, giving McIntosh more time to prove himself.
Then came revelations of more gifts accepted from vendors during McIntosh's tenure as county administrator.
His future in Hernando already shaky, it seemed ready to collapse. So he brokered a deal with county commissioners that allowed him to resign with a $65,000 parachute package that included severance pay, vacation and leave pay, insurance coverage and legal fees.
McIntosh's second-in-command, Richard Radacky, was named interim county administrator.
Spring Hill fire Commissioner Dennis Andrews stepped down so he could pursue a teaching job in Ocala.
Several neighborhoods in the Spring Hill area, such as Silverthorn and Seven Hills, learned that affordable housing might come to their vicinity. They bristled and railed against the apartment complex proposals.
And, finally, it seemed the FGUA had succeeded in its quest to acquire Florida Water Services, getting tentative acceptance of its $528-million offer to ALLETE.
Only a few details needed working out, authorities thought.
Alfred A. McKethan, the man who used personal power and influence to help turn Hernando County into what it is today, died.
He was remembered for bringing numerous growth-sparking projects to the county, from the extension of SR 50 to the Pasco-Hernando Community College campus.
Paul McIntosh, the former county administrator, won a new job as chief administrative officer for Butte County, Calif.
County commissioners began discussing plans for a public nudity ordinance to halt the creep of adult businesses from Pasco to Hernando.
The Times Publishing Co. officially broke ground on a new 30,000-square-foot building for the Hernando edition of the St. Petersburg Times, not far from the Suncoast Parkway on SR 50.
And the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission agreed to seek the fire district's independence from Hernando County government.
The county broke ground on the new skateboard park for youth in Spring Hill, the culmination of months of lobbying by supporters of the project, thanks to an investment of $250,000 from taxpayers and more than $80,000 in contributions from the community.
Hernando HealthCare, frustrated by Oak Hill Hospital's unrelenting challenge of Brooksville Regional's relocation closer to Spring Hill, launched an ad campaign that painted Oak Hill as a stumbling block to Hernando's getting modern medical facilities.
Work proceeded on an airboat ordinance, with a task force agreeing to drop plans for airboating curfews.
Despite complaints and challenges, Wal-Mart won county approval for a new Supercenter on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.
Dissent continued to brew among residents opposed to plans for affordable apartments proposed for the Seven Hills area. Opponents sent e-mails to Gov. Jeb Bush's office criticizing plans for Spring Haven Apartments, and efforts began to stop the issuing of bonds to finance the project.
Meanwhile, trouble continued growing for the FGUA's bid to buy Florida Water Services, as state Rep. Frank Attkisson criticized the proposed $520-million deal.
Attkisson's concern: The FGUA, a coalition of counties building an investment pool to buy Florida Water, would be an unregulated monopoly with more power than the Legislature intended when creating the FGUA. A handful of counties shouldn't hold sway over the water service of others, he reasoned.
And the new county administrator, Richard Radacky, began his quest for a new second-in-command to serve as his likely heir apparent. Radacky is scheduled to retire in
State Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, joined a growing chorus of voices opposed to plans for the FGUA to buy Florida Water Services.
While support for the FGUA's plans fragmented, Hernando County continued to watch and wait, not joining in yet with the coalition for a chance to own the local segment of the utility that serves Spring Hill.
Weeki Wachee Springs saw the departure of its general manager, Michael Jacobs, who was lured away to Ocala to work as supervisor of custodial services for the Marion County school system. Robyn Anderson, operations director and a former mermaid at the attraction, succeeded Jacobs as general manager.
Heavy rains spawned new sinkholes in Spring Hill, including a rather surprising collapse near the 13th hole of the Seven Hills Golf Club.
And, not far from that club, county commissioners, yielding to public pressure, yanked support for an unpopular 176-unit affordable housing complex.
Embattled middle school teacher Joseph Gatti won again. Administrative law judge Diane Cleavinger cleared Gatti, allowing him to keep his teaching license.
The Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment took on Wal-Mart in a lawsuit, trying to stop progress on the Supercenter already under construction on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.
The group, known as CAUSE, wanted the retail giant's construction permits revoked because plans were considered by the county's Development Review Committee out of the public eye.
CAUSE argued the closed DRC meeting violated the state's open meetings law, while the county reasoned that the DRC was a fact-finding body and could hold closed meetings.
Avid airboaters managed to reach a compromise with the county's advisory task force that was working on an airboat ordinance. Rather than banning the craft outright, as some committee members wanted to do, the ordinance sought instead to limit them to natural waterways.
The Withlacoochee STOP Camp, a low-risk juvenile offender program near Ridge Manor, closed because of state budget cuts.
Echoes of ex-County Administrator Paul McIntosh continued as commissioners adopted a strict policy for county employees and the acceptance of gifts from those hoping to do business with the government.
The new rule forbids county workers from seeking or accepting gifts of any value from someone trying to influence government action. Gifts worth less than $25 are acceptable, but only if they are intended as a show of appreciation.
Oak Hill Hospital announced it would close its obstetrics unit, raising some concerns at competitor Spring Hill Regional Hospital about patient overloads.
The puzzling deaths of Joan Shiver; her husband, Byron, and her mother-in-law, Louise, found shot to death in and around a pontoon boat off the Hernando coast, made statewide news.
Although some speculated early on that some kind of pirates had murdered the Orlando residents, sheriff's investigators ultimately determined that Joan Shiver shot her husband and mother-in-law, then got into the water and shot herself.
The motive may have been her poor health or financial problems, investigators said.
Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, became the state senator for District 15, which includes eastern Hernando and portions of Spring Hill. She had no competition for the seat when qualifying ended. Also, School Board member John Druzbick won re-election without a contender.
Friction grew between the Brooksville City Council and the Hernando County Commission as commissioners revoked the city's long-standing contract to provide fire service for Township 22, which supplied about $330,000 of the Brooksville Fire Department's $1.2-million budget.
The month began with the end of an era, as Florida Rock closed its hard rock quarry in Brooksville. The company's soft rock operations continue.
Then, controversy erupted with revelations that three Spring Hill firefighters -- John Ferriero, Edward Falk and Tom White -- had been accused of raping a 32-year-old woman at a convention in Altamonte Springs.
The case raised questions about how Chief J.J. Morrison and then-fire Commissioner and County Commission candidate Bob Kanner handled the revelations and discipline for the firefighters.
After the story became public, but well after it was known by both Morrison and Kanner, the firefighters were suspended, pending the outcome of the investigation.
The situation exposed some weaknesses in the department that required fortification, such as the lack of an internal affairs entity for Spring Hill Fire Rescue.
High levels of fecal coliform and enterococci in the water led Hernando County health officials to ban swimming at Pine Island.
Mark Tallent, after 16 years overseeing the school district's bus system, announced his plans to retire.
Oak Hill Hospital officially shut down its obstetrics program, leading to a patient overflow problem at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.
The investigation continued into three Spring Hill firefighters and the rape accusation leveled against them. The alleged victim said she didn't believe the fire district could perform an objective internal investigation. She wanted outside investigators to handle the internal disciplinary probe.
In a shocking move, the small Florida Panhandle towns of Milton and Gulf Breeze coordinated plans for a $507-million buyout of Florida Water Services, cutting off at the knees any plans by FGUA and its member counties to acquire the system.
Hernando County officials vowed to fight the takeover plan.
As the 2002 general election grew closer, Hernando County's voter rolls surpassed 100,000 registered voters. Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nearly 3,000.
The most closely watched race in regional politics: the battle between U.S. Congress District 5 incumbent Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, and challenger state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.
Brown-Waite's campaigns hit two major obstacles in October.
First, her husband, Harvey, and a friend were caught stealing and vandalizing Thurman campaign signs in the dead of night, and faced the risk of criminal charges. Second, Brown-Waite was accused of using her position as a state senator to help her husband's vending business.
Those controversies were mitigated by high-profile backing for Brown-Waite from President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Gov. Jeb Bush.
Joseph Gatti, cleared earlier in the year by an administrative law judge so that he could keep his teaching certificate, joined fellow Powell Middle School teacher Nevin Seiffert II in proposing the county's first charter school.
After talking about settling their differences, Brooksville Regional and Oak Hill hospitals remained at odds.
Oak Hill officials had made a conditional offer to accept the state's next decision on plans for Brooksville Regional's move. Brooksville Regional officials questioned the legality of making such a deal, because it might be anticompetitive.
Meanwhile, the county began exploring whether it should take over the 27-acre Weeki Wachee Springs attraction, home to Buccaneer Bay and the world-famous Weeki Wachee mermaids.
Ginny Brown-Waite defeated incumbent Karen Thurman in the U.S. Congress District 5 race, despite losing her home county of Hernando.
Republican political novice Robert Schenck ousted Chris Kingsley from the County Commission, while Democratic Commissioner Nancy Robinson held off a challenge from Rose Rocco.
Brooksville City Council member Ernie Wever won re-election against Frankie Burnett, although Burnett challenged the election results. The council ultimately upheld the results, however.
Spring Hill voters rejected a referendum that would have made their fire district independent from county oversight.
Some fire commissioners blamed publicity about the sex scandal involving three firefighters for the loss, while others claimed that voters simply were ignorant about what was at stake.
The Seminole County State Attorney's Office said it lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute firefighters John Ferriero, Ed Falk and Tom White. Although no criminal charges would be forthcoming, the firefighters still faced potential disciplinary action stemming from an internal investigation.
Opponents of the Spring Haven Apartments affordable housing project proposed near Seven Hills won a victory in court, as Circuit Judge Jack Springstead refused to grant the Hernando County Housing Authority the right to issue millions of dollars in bonds that the agency wanted to use to build the apartments.
In other court news, the CAUSE environmental group won support from Circuit Judge John W. Booth for its assertion that the county's Development Review Committee should hold open meetings.
But Booth stopped short of granting the victory that CAUSE members really wanted: a halt to construction on the Wal-Mart Supercenter on U.S. 19.
The city of Brooksville filed an appeal of Judge Booth's ruling, which supported Hernando County's cancellation of the Township 22 fire service contract, which would cost the city $330,000 a year if allowed to stand.
Brooksville had served the area just outside the city limits for three decades before the county decided to kill the contract.
Daniel Ray Erickson, a convicted sex offender who failed to register with the county earlier this year, asked Circuit Judge Jack Springstead to order his picture removed from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site.
Erickson told the Times his girlfriend broke up with him after seeing his picture on the FDLE site. Springstead refused.
Later in the month, Erickson was arrested on voter fraud charges.
The State Attorney's Office charged Erickson after learning that he had registered to vote as a Republican in 1998, and had participated in nine elections, including November's gubernatorial race. It's illegal for a convicted felon to vote.
Hugh McConnell McGeehan, a longtime Realtor who helped create the community of Spring Hill, died at 83 after a long illness. He moved to Hernando County in 1967 as part of Deltona Corp.'s original sales force, with the task of helping turn more than 15,000 sandy acres into the suburban neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the sale of Florida Water Services got pushed back from December until at least January.
Those involved in the purchase deal said they needed more time to work out the details, including benefits packages for the 500 employees who come with the company.
Hernando County attorneys remained hopeful that a barrage of legal challenges to the sale would keep stalling the purchase.
The city of Brooksville discussed plans to join the Panhandle towns of Milton and Gulf Breeze in the Florida Water purchase -- and if the Panhandle purchase falls through, the city may go it alone.
County commissioners approved the selection of George J. Roussos of Colorado as deputy county administrator and heir apparent to the top administrative job currently held by Richard Radacky, who is expected to retire in 2004.
Popular Hernando High School students Jason Lewis and Zachary Lukas, both 16, died of hypothermia in the Gulf of Mexico after the personal watercraft they were riding broke down and stranded them overnight.
Spring Hill firefighters John Ferriero, Ed Falk and Tom White kept their jobs with the fire district but were found to be in violation of department rules and were deemed by Chief J.J. Morrison to have tarnished the district's reputation. They were hit with suspensions ranging from two to four weeks and lost some benefits.
But some fire commissioners found the penalties too lenient and may push for termination.
Heavy rains pushed the Withlacoochee River past flood stage, with waters rising higher than 13 feet and flooding parts of Talisman Estates and other neighborhoods along the river south of SR 50.
And an administrative law judge recommended a final order be issued, approving Brooksville Regional Hospital's planned move to a new site closer to competitor Oak Hill Hospital.
Oak Hill chief executive officer Jaime Wesolowski said no appeal would be lodged against the final order, bringing to an apparent end this chapter in the dueling hospital saga.
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2002: The Year in Review