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Politics

Feudin' and fussin' at Brooksville City Hall

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published January 18, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - Politics is what you'd expect in Brooksville, a city named for antebellum politician Preston Brooks, who beat a colleague with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Here in the quiet seat of Hernando County with its 7,500 residents, a nasty feud has consumed City Hall.

The city manager resigned before he could be fired. The City Council placed the police chief and the human resources director on paid leave after months of bitter fighting between the two men.

Ron Baker, the human resources director, was arrested back in August on charges he gave Xanax to a co-worker who was having an anxiety attack. Baker claims the charge - which was dropped after he attended counseling - was engineered by the police chief as retribution after Baker complained about an alleged affair between the chief and a City Hall secretary.

Police Chief Ed Tincher says he doesn't know what Baker is talking about. The secretary isn't saying anything.

Last week, the City Council voted for an independent investigation of the Police Department and the city staff, but council members are still bickering over who will do it.

As tempers flare, City Hall is abuzz with talk of paramours, attempted suicides and sweeping conspiracies to reshape city government.

As the World Turns, meet your tax dollar at work.

* * *

While Baker was launching his salvo at the police chief, he was also busy accusing City Manager Richard Anderson of sexually harassing a City Hall secretary.

The secretary came to Baker - in his role as human resources director - to complain that Anderson had stuffed cake in her mouth during an office party, stuck his tongue out at her and licked his lips another time and told her on yet another occasion that he liked her "equipment."

Anderson denied it.

In Anderson's 11 years as city manager, the city's insurance carrier has settled three sexual harassment claims against him, paying out a total of $205,000.

Anderson says he would have been exonerated if those cases had gone to court.

* * *

So what's behind the feud?

Anderson, Tincher and others say it's all part of a plan to disband the Brooksville Police Department and bring in the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, a conspiracy that goes back more than a dozen years.

In 1993, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated accusations that Tincher improperly bought and sold guns that had been seized as evidence. Tincher was not charged.

But a year later, his job and the fire chief's job were consolidated under a new position of public safety director. The city manager at the time said it was to save money. Then the fire chief got his job back and Tincher was fired.

Tincher and his supporters organized a recall election that put a new majority on the City Council. That council restored Tincher to police chief, where he has remained ever since.

One council member booted out of office was Joe Bernardini, a Bell South employee. He was replaced by Richard Lewis, a letter carrier. After a few years with neither one on the council, Bernardini and Lewis returned to the council in December.

At an emergency council meeting on Jan. 11, Bernardini brought a county sheriff's deputy for protection, saying Lewis was so unstable that he might shoot someone at the meeting.

Lewis, a strong supporter of the Police Department, came out blazing with allegations about Bernardini's personal life - alluding to old and discredited charges of domestic abuse from Bernardini's ex-wife and pointing out that Bernardini was dating the woman who allegedly received the Xanax from Baker.

So what if he is dating that woman, Bernardini said outside City Hall. They didn't start dating until months after the incident and, besides, Baker told him it was all okay.

But Bernardini said Tincher's alleged affair was a different story. He mentioned the affair to Anderson and City Attorney David LaCroix.

"The city attorney said it's not against the law," Bernardini said. "And I said it's not against the law but there's got to be something - professional misconduct."

* * *

As the politicians and staffers fight, residents complain that the feud has distracted the city.

"There are so many more important things we should be looking at," business owner Patricia Springstead said at a council meeting. "If I had to deal with this c--- every day, I'd need a Xanax."

Shameful? Perhaps. Ridiculous? Maybe.

Irreconcilable? Maybe not.

Attorneys for Tincher and Baker drafted a letter this week saying the personal allegations never should have been made and that both men look forward to serving the city "as professionals with mutual respect for the diligence, good intentions and abilities of the other."

The city's labor attorney has questioned whether the council has the power to investigate and meddle in personnel issues.

There's even talk that the city manager is considering withdrawing his resignation.

But the city is still a long way from happily ever after.

[Last modified January 18, 2007, 06:37:58]


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