An ethics pledge backpedal

Al Higginbotham wants a ruling on whether he must abstain from voting.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 11, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham had said he would abstain from a vote on allowing independent haulers to pick up debris from construction sites, but now he's not so sure.

He made that pledge after the St. Petersburg Times disclosed that his wife's construction company does business with a central figure in the dispute.

Now he is seeking an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics' general counsel as to whether he must abstain after all.

Higginbotham said he made the initial pledge after Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee said the relationship may pose a conflict. After conferring with Lee, he said she told him that the comment was more speculative than firm.

"So I said let's get the speculation out of it and get an opinion," Higginbotham said. "If they rule that I can't, then I'll abide by that."

Higginbotham said he conferred with one of Lee's managing attorneys, Mary Helen Farris, after the initial stories about the relationship between his wife's company. Farris told him she didn't see a conflict because any decision reached will affect a broad spectrum of people, not just Higginbotham's wife.

Lee said that, because any decision the commission reaches could result in lawsuits, she thought consulting the Ethics Commission was a good idea.

"This whole dispute could lead to more litigation, and he really wanted to be clear on this," Lee said. "So he did request to be sure that our opinion was scrubbed by the highest authority on it."

Hillsborough County now contracts with three major garbage haulers for residential garbage pickup and disposal. In exchange for generally low rates, those three companies are given exclusive rights to commercial garbage pickup in the county.

For years, other garbage companies, many of them smaller "mom and pop" businesses, have carved a niche picking up demolition debris from construction sites.

When the county began responding to complaints from the three franchise garbage companies with citations against some of the so-called rogue haulers, one filed suit.

A judge agreed with the hauler that a county ordinance on the matter isn't so clear. So the county sought to tighten the ordinance to make it clearer that only the three franchise haulers can pick up garbage from construction sites.

The proposal has packed county meeting rooms with independent haulers who say they are about to be put out of business. Higginbotham has been their champion, sparring with county staff over the crackdown.

In a public meeting, he cited one of the companies threatened by the change, Johnson's Excavation & Services Inc., which has waged a letter-writing campaign on the issue. A Times story last month showed that Johnson's Excavation does debris removal work with Archive Properties, a home-building company owned by Higginbotham's wife, Devon.

An early request from one of Higginbotham's aides to county staffers seeking information about the crackdown on independent haulers also mentioned that the commissioner went to high school with the owner of Johnson's Excavation. The e-mail said the Higginbotham wanted to make sure his old classmate was taken care of.