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Pinellas Park hires lobbyist at $50,000

The City Council is divided over a contract with Ron Book - in part because he also represents Pinellas.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

PINELLAS PARK -- A sharply divided City Council decided Thursday to hire a lobbyist for the first time in the city's history.

Hired for $48,000 plus $2,000 expenses annually for two years was Ron Book, a south Floridian who also represents Pinellas County in certain issues that come before the Legislature.

Book will continue to represent the county when it does not conflict with Pinellas Park's interests. When annexation issues arise, he will represent the city's views.

Book's county tie was one of four reasons Pinellas Park council member Ed Taylor gave for voting against the contract.

Taylor also questioned the amount of the contract. He agreed the council had set aside $50,000 a year for a lobbyist, but wondered why it was necessary to pay the entire amount. Bids, he said, usually come in lower than what is budgeted for them.

Taylor objected to the selection process itself. The city asked for bids from lobbyists around the state, and then a committee, composed of four nonelected city officials and an assistant county administrator who lives in Pinellas Park, interviewed the candidates. Committee members ranked Book the highest and passed his name to the council for a vote.

The process was developed with advice from county and St. Petersburg officials, Taylor said. He objected to a county employee's sitting on the committee.

Taylor blamed the process for the fact that Book, with his county connections, was the highest-ranked candidate. Ranked second-highest, Bill Peebles once represented St. Petersburg. The outcome, Taylor said, made him wonder if the process was tainted and set up to favor lobbyists with ties to the county and St. Petersburg.

Another problem, he said, was the "lack of local flavor of these folks." Other lobbyists who had submitted bids were local and therefore could be likely to have stronger ties with members of the Pinellas County legislative delegation, as well as being intimately familiar with the area's roads, people and drainage problems.

Two of those local lobbyists, Mark Anderson and Travis Moore, attended Thursday's meeting to urge the council to consider them in the future.

They had found out about the Pinellas Park job two ways: by receiving an invitation to bid and by calls from the local legislative delegation.

Moore, whose mother works for state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, said the legislative delegation "unanimously told us, 'You are who we want to work with.' "

Anderson said those ties allowed the two to understand both the local political climate and what's happening in the Tampa Bay area.

"We're in your back yard. We drive your roads. We know the issues," Anderson said.

Mayor Bill Mischler, who voted for Book, conceded that he, like other council members, received calls from "numerous state senators, representatives" urging him to vote for a pet lobbyist.

"I remained neutral when I talked to those state representatives," Mischler said. He told them that it was up to the committee. "I am willing to go along with the recommendation of the selection committee."

Council member Patricia Bailey-Snook said she, too, had received calls from legislators lobbying for certain lobbyists. But she, a former legislator, knew Book and thought he would do a fine job. Book, she said, would "be up to speed" and bring in "triple and quadruple" the money the city was paying him.

Mischler, Bailey-Snook and Sandy Bradbury voted to hire Book. Taylor and Rick Butler voted no.

The decision to hire and monitor a lobbyist proved contentious for council members all last week. At Tuesday's workshop, Butler wanted to make sure that any lobbyist understood he was to answer to the council, not to City Manager Jerry Mudd or the city attorney.

Referring to the fact that things can change quickly during debates in Tallahassee, Butler said, "He may have some immediate needs of communication."

It's the council, not the city manager, Butler said, who should tell Book how to react when problems arise.

Mischler eased Butler's fears, saying Mudd would make a good contact person for Book.

"I believe, knowing the city manager, that when Mr. Book contacts him about something, or he needs some information that (Mudd) is going to this City Council before he makes that decision," Mischler said.

The mayor added, "If there's something that comes up real fast, he's still going to call Jerry and Jerry will call us."

Mudd agreed he would make no policy decisions without direction from the council members.

"Whatever method we use, I can assure you that I would not pass on any policy decisions to Mr. Book without consulting with council," Mudd said. "If it was a rapidly developing issue, I'd at least give you a courtesy call, each one of you, and tell you what Mr. Book (wanted)."

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