Commissioners clash over contract rules
By BILL VARIAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001
TAMPA -- Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to let a top administrator award contracts for up to $100,000 without having to get their permission first.
But Commissioner Jan Platt thinks the new plan invites hanky-panky, especially from commissioners who might try to help friends.
She has convinced a slim majority of commissioners to consider a policy that would make it difficult for them to meddle in those contracts now that they will be approved outside the public spotlight.
Her proposal comes a little more than a week after a St. Petersburg Times story about the efforts of a campaign supporter of Commissioner Tom Scott to win contracts with the county and state attorney's office (Scott's ethics again in question (March 12, 2001)).
Scott was among those most strenuously opposing Platt's suggested policy Wednesday.
Before voting against her proposal, Scott repeatedly asked Platt if there was a specific situation she was trying to fix. "I'm a firm believer in getting to the bottom of an issue," he said, asking her if there was some reason behind her suggestion.
Platt declined to get specific.
"I just see that there is an opportunity for mischief," she said.
But Platt said after the meeting that she did have Scott on her mind when she made the suggestion. She had written a letter to County Administrator Dan Kleman last week after the Times story March 12.
In her memo, Platt asked if the administrator intended to craft a policy about commissioners meeting with staff directors to discuss issues. She noted that the county charter forbids commissioners from interfering in administrative decisions.
The Times story indicated Scott's office had intervened on behalf of campaign supporter Michael Hadley, who had initially been denied a contract to deliver water samples for the county. Hadley's company was ultimately awarded the job, despite poor reviews from the county for earlier contract work by another of Hadley's companies involved in transporting disabled patients to medical appointments.
State Attorney Mark Ober also said Scott accompanied Hadley on an appointment in his office in February. Hadley, now operating a private investigations business, was seeking contract work serving subpoenas. The county approves part of the state attorney's budget. Ober declined to give Hadley's company any work.
Scott has claimed that he simply accompanied a friend to the meeting, but didn't know what it was about. He denied Wednesday that he had done anything to lobby for any contract on behalf of Hadley.
"I have never contacted any staff member about any contract for any particular purpose," Scott said. He further criticized Platt for not raising her specific concerns during the commission meeting.
"I believe if you're an elected official, you ought to be man or woman enough to place your issues on the table. That's cowardice. The appropriate way to deal with this is in a public forum."
The change in how contracts are handled was one of a half-dozen proposals made by Kleman to streamline decision-making. Commissioners have previously reviewed all contracts of $25,000 or more.
The change allows the county's purchasing manager to award contracts of up to $100,000, though the manager must seek bids. Platt voted against the proposal, along with commission Chairwoman Pat Frank.
Scott was not the only commissioner voicing objections to Platt's suggested addition. Commissioners Jim Norman and Chris Hart also voted against considering the anti-meddling policy.
"I guess we're saying we're correcting a problem that I don't know exists," Norman said.
Hart and Ronda Storms raised similar questions about whether there was a particular motive for the policy suggestion that wasn't being voiced. But Storms said she was willing to consider proposals.
It is unclear how the new policy would read. Kleman was directed on the 4-3 vote to craft language for the commission's consideration.
- Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3378 or at email@example.com.
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