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Senator to resign Swiftmud position

Ginny Brown-Waite sees potential problems in balancing legislative duties with her job with the water district.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite thought she could avoid conflicts of interest when she joined the Southwest Florida Water Management District staff a year ago.

But over time, Brown-Waite's best efforts to separate her legislative work from her day job proved difficult.

Constituents came to her Senate office seeking special dispensation from Swiftmud. She faced possible problems filing water-related bills because she needed to identify the responsible water management district.

"The lines started to get too blurry," Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said Monday.

That, combined with an increasingly hectic schedule, forced the Senate president pro tem to make a choice. She chose her $27,000-a-year Senate seat, giving Swiftmud Executive Director E.D. "Sonny" Vergara notice that she would resign her $71,600-a-year communications and community affairs job effective March 14.

"It's not the smartest thing financially I've ever done," said Brown-Waite, who represents Hernando County and parts of Pasco, Polk and Sumter counties. "But it's the right thing."

Before taking the Swiftmud post, Brown-Waite sought the advice of the Florida Commission on Ethics, noting the job would require her to represent the district before local and federal officials. Because she would not be lobbying legislators or state agencies, no official conflict existed, said Philip Claypool, the commission's general counsel.

Claypool's advisory opinion did not quell criticism, however. The critics, including some Democrats, contended that Brown-Waite had an inherent problem in setting policy for the agency that pays her. If she recused herself, they said, Brown-Waite would deprive her constituents of an informed voice on the critical issue of water resources.

She also endured speculation, denied by Senate leaders, that she got the Swiftmud job as a plum for deciding to remain in the Senate until 2002 rather than resigning to run for Hernando County supervisor of elections. Vergara also rejected that notion, saying that Brown-Waite simply was the most qualified of several candidates.

So Brown-Waite took the senior management job.

But that was before Senate President John McKay of Bradenton named her to his leadership team and appointed her to eight busy committees, including the powerful appropriations, redistricting and rules committees.

Suddenly Brown-Waite, who also teaches and does some consulting work, found herself with too much to do and not enough time. Four hours of sleep a night is fine, she said, "but I reached a point where I said, you know, I can't do it all."

House Majority Leader Mike Fasano of New Port Richey empathized. Working in the upper echelons of government means your time is not your own, he said, adding that he is lucky his bosses at Morgan Stanley understand his lengthy absences from the office.

Fasano has tried unsuccessfully to stop lawmakers who work for state-funded agencies from drawing both salaries at the same time. He does not suggest, however, that people who work for government not be allowed to hold elected state office or that Florida give up its part-time citizen Legislature.

"We understand what we're getting ourselves into," Fasano said, noting that each lawmaker must decide independently how much time to put toward the Legislature. "We should not change it after we get into office."

Brown-Waite worked for Swiftmud in the early 1990s, before she won election to the Senate. She worked for Columbia HCA, now HCA -- The Healthcare Co., before rejoining Swiftmud last year.

Water management district spokesman Michael Molligan said no decision has been made on replacing Brown-Waite.

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