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Honesty blunts political attack


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

Mike Morgan found an ally in the most unlikely place Thursday night.

The chief of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District stood before the five elected commissioners who, as an entity, are his boss. Morgan, returning after an unexpected three-week layoff that was brought on by a heart attack, had just been forced to say something all of us know, but rarely admit in public.

He's not perfect.

Stop the presses.

Morgan explained to the board that he is not the administrator he wishes he were. He has improved since taking the job in June 1995, and he continues to improve. But sometimes he screws up, and if that had happened this time, he regretted it.

What brought Morgan to this humbling moment was his decision several weeks ago to recommend that the commission authorize the purchase of a $50,000 truck to fight brush fires. Morgan told the commission the bill would be paid by impact fees the county collects to offset the expenses that stem from new development.

But when the invoice reached the desk of assistant county attorney Bill Buztrey, he stopped payment. Impact fees are not meant for that particular emergency service, Buztrey opined. When word got back to the fire commission, they were upset because they believed Morgan had misled them, whether intentionally or by misunderstanding. The commissioners' frustration grew because the guy they wanted to blame was not around. He was recuperating from his heart attack.

Unless the County Commission finds some other interpretation of the law, the fire district will have to use money from its contingency fund to pay for the truck. Chairman Bob Kanner found out he'd have to pull on his groveling shoes and appear before the County Commission Tuesday to offer an explanation.

But before that would happen, Kanner decided the best thing to do with the egg on his face would be to smear some on Morgan's. And that's just what he did Thursday night when he convened an emergency meeting of the fire board to discipline the chief.

Of course, there was no emergency, except in the eyes of Kanner and his fellow commissioners, who never even questioned the propriety of a meeting that had been called on scant 24-hour notice. It didn't concern them that the public was given hardly any notice in case they wanted to attend the meeting, or that this could just as easily have been dealt with at the regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday. Maybe the full moon eclipsed their vision of Florida's Sunshine Law, which they came arguably close to violating.

Kanner was out for Morgan's blood. And to a lesser degree, so were newbie Commissioners Richard Martin and Jeff Hollander, all of who seemed to agree that the right thing to do would be to suspend the guy with the weakened heart for a week without pay.

That's when Commissioner Dennis Andrews surprised everyone by urging his colleagues to back off a bit, citing his belief that Morgan had just been "careless," not calculating, with his misinterpretation of how impact fees are allocated. Such an offense merited a reprimand, but not a suspension, Andrews reasoned.

I'm surprised Morgan didn't have another heart attack.

Andrews, along with Kanner, has been one of Morgan's most vocal critics. Andrews was chief before Morgan and often finds fault with Morgan's oversight of district operations. For him to be the one who saved Morgan from the harsher disciplinary action is nothing less than remarkable. It also is a testament to his integrity and ability to distinguish between history and current events. Veteran board member Gene Panozzo also kept the matter in perspective and supported Andrews' recommendation.

Still, Kanner still got his pound of flesh. Morgan's reprimand will put him on notice that another foul-up will result in suspension or, depending on its magnitude, termination. Kanner will be able to stand before the county commissioners Tuesday and assure them the fire commission was duped into making a bad decision, and that they take these matters very seriously. He'll hold up the board's punishment of Morgan as a decisive and stern response to a bureaucratic bungle.

But make no mistake about it, Kanner suffered a defeat Thursday night. In his self-important zeal to traumatize the chief, he became a victim of his self-declared emergency.

Astute taxpayers will recognize that Morgan is a scapegoat -- perhaps deservedly so -- but that Kanner and the other commissioners who were prepared to sacrifice Morgan on a whim are animals of a different kind.

You fill in the blank.

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