Utility makes unannounced hiring decision

Crist's open-government expert questions water board's action.

By CRAIG PITTMAN and JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writers
Published January 16, 2008

Meeting without the public or reporters looking on, the board of Tampa Bay Water voted Tuesday to offer its top job to a former city manager of New Port Richey.

The timing of the vote raised questions among experts about whether the board may have violated Florida's open-government law.

The vote occurred in a meeting with little notice to the public, and it happened 10 days before the scheduled meeting to select the new general manager.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Pat Gleason, who serves as Gov. Charlie Crist's special counsel for open government.

The board's chairwoman, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, was taken aback by questions regarding whether the meeting at the utility's Clearwater offices had been held without notifying the public. She said she assumed the staff had handled everything properly.

"It wasn't a secret meeting," Latvala said. When asked what would happen if Tuesday's vote violated the law, she said, "I don't know. I think what it means is we get knocked around."

The utility's general counsel, Richard Lotspeich, contended that the utility board followed the law. A notice about the meeting was published in the Florida Administrative Weekly, which is circulated only to a few lawyers and 24 public libraries, according to its publisher.

"If nobody showed up, that's not our problem," Lotspeich said.

The board met this week to interview candidates to replace Jerry Maxwell, who served a tumultuous 12 years as the utility's general manager. Maxwell, who once choked the utility's previous attorney during an argument, earns $176,000 a year. He is retiring Feb. 28.

The board chose Gerald Seeber as his replacement. Seeber spent nearly 16 years as New Port Richey's city manager before he quit in 2004 to become the city manager of Oviedo, a town twice the size of New Port Richey about 10 miles from Orlando.

Although he earned praise from town officials when he left New Port Richey, he was criticized for allowing the police chief to duck public questions. After he left, the city had to pay a settlement to the First Amendment Foundation as a noncriminal penalty for actions taken by him and two other city officials regarding public records.

Normally when Tampa Bay Water - the state's largest regional wholesale utility - holds a board meeting, a notice about the meeting is posted on the utility's Web site, along with a copy of the agenda, for its customers in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties to see.

But neither Tuesday's meeting nor the Jan. 25 meeting were advertised on the Web site as of Tuesday night. Michelle Biddle Rapp, the utility's public affairs officer, said she could not explain why that happened.

"I didn't know it wasn't on the Web site," she said. "I'm glad you brought that to our attention."

Because there was no mention of either meeting in the usual place, "obviously you can question whether there's a real commitment to open government," said Gleason, the governor's open-government expert.

The Florida Administrative Weekly notice says only that the board would interview candidates. Neither it nor the agenda for Tuesday's meeting make any mention of a vote to pick Maxwell's successor.

The agenda calls for candidate interviews, a break, "next steps," then "adjournment." However, the meeting went beyond that.

After the interviews, "the board voted and selected," said board member Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner. "The chairwoman asked the board members, and the board members all said yes, they were ready to make their decision."

Five of the seven utility board members were present, said board member Ann Hildebrand, a Pasco County commissioner. The members ranked their top candidates, settled a tie with another vote and then unanimously authorized Latvala to negotiate with the winner, she said.

As with Tuesday's meeting, the utility advertised its Jan. 25 special meeting in the Florida Administrative Weekly, which is published by the Florida Department of State primarily for notices of new state rules.

The published notice for the Jan. 25 meeting, to occur at the $140-million desalination plant in Apollo Beach, says, "The Tampa Bay Water board of directors will select a general manager."

Lotspeich, the board's attorney, contended that the board's actions Tuesday are legal because "select" does not mean the board would pick the next general manager at the Jan. 25 meeting. Instead, he said, "select" means that the board would ratify the contract with its new general manager.

However, Hildebrand said, "there was nothing said about any ratification" of Tuesday's vote at a subsequent meeting.

Alison Steele, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the St. Petersburg Times, said that, like Gleason, she couldn't think of another case like this one. But she was convinced Tuesday's vote didn't jibe with Florida's tradition of open government.

"I'm officially appalled," she said.

Times staff researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.


On the Web

For links to the official meeting notices of Tampa Bay Water's board for Tuesday and for Jan. 25 that were published in the Florida Administrative Weekly, go to: https://www.flrules.org/notice/QuickResult.asp?P0=Stat_Meet_Div&P1=158&P2=90.