Swiftmud official's firm gets dredging contract
By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- A top officer in the company hired to dredge Lake Maggiore is also on the board of the government agency helping to pay for the $12-million project.
Ronald C. Johnson is vice-president of Jahna Dredging Inc., a Lakeland-based company that won the city contract to remove muck from the lake.
Johnson is also a member of the governing board of Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, which is equally sharing the dredging cost with the city of St. Petersburg.
City and Swiftmud officials said Johnson's company won the contract fairly by submitting the lowest bid during a competitive bidding process. The city was in charge of the contract, but Swiftmud provided oversight.
Johnson said he took care to avoid potential conflicts by abstaining from any votes related to Lake Maggiore.
But local environmentalists and government watchers are questioning whether Johnson's company should have been eligible for the contract.
"There is definitely something wrong here," said Kathy Durham, an opponent of the dredging project. "A deal like this is just unheard of."
And some members of the City Council said that while they don't suspect impropriety, they wish Johnson's relationship with Swiftmud had been disclosed before the contract was approved.
"It would seem like there could be some perception issues, even if there's nothing in reality," said council member Jay Lasita.
Scraping the 4-foot layer of sludge from the lake's bottom has been in the works for years. In 1993, the city signed a contract with Swiftmud to share the cost of muck removal.
The total price of the multiyear project was initially estimated at $10-million and later amended to $12.3-million. Most of the cost was for the dredging portion, about $7-million.
The city opened the bidding process for the dredging in August 2001, receiving proposals from six companies. Jahna submitted the lowest bid at $7.7-million. The second-lowest was Mobile Dredging & Pumping Co.'s offer of $10.3-million.
In August 2002, Johnson signed the contract with the city. While preparation work already has begun, the actual dredging is scheduled to begin in June and will take about two years.
Johnson, 48, is a former private attorney. He joined E.R. Jahna in 1986 after marrying Becky Jahna, daughter of the firm's president.
He was appointed to the 11-member Swiftmud governing board in 1997 and served as board chairman from April 1999 to April 2001.
Johnson said he has abstained from any vote involving Lake Maggiore for several years because he planned to submit a bid for the contract.
Johnson also said he publicly announced his interest in the project to the other members of the governing board.
"There is nothing inappropriate from my perspective in respect to how the job was bid or how it has been handled," he said.
Before accepting the contract, Johnson sought an opinion from the general counsel of Swiftmud, who said there was no conflict because the city of St. Petersburg was the agency handling the contract, Johnson said.
"We have simply dealt with the city of St. Petersburg as we would any other job," he said.
The city's legal department was not asked to look into the relationship, said Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.
But critics of the project said Johnson's dual role raises serious concerns.
Durham, who has taken an active role in opposing the dredging, said she's especially troubled by the open-ended nature of Jahna's contract. She questioned whether another company would have received the same hands-off treatment.
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