Staffers water end run fails
By LISA GREENE and JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001
Faced with slashing water use because of Florida's drought, a handful of senior Pinellas County staffers came up with a plan to make things easier.
They would ask state lawmakers to limit the Southwest Florida Water Management District's authority to fine them for using too much water.
But county commissioners, those elected to set such policies, were never told about the staffers' plan.
Accusations, questions and apologies flew Wednesday, after commissioners learned the proposal was floated in Tallahassee and sent to water regulators around Tampa Bay before being abandoned this week.
"We're the ones that set the policy, we're the ones that are elected," said Commissioner John Morroni.
Pick Talley, the county utilities director, agreed.
"We were wrong," he said.
Commissioners said Talley and other staffers overstepped their authority and wondered whether the incident was part of a larger problem. Just a few months ago, many commissioners were surprised to learn that the county had overspent its sales tax fund by $120-million.
The water proposal could have hurt the fragile commitment made by regional governments to work together on water needs, commissioners said. Other regional officials said the proposal surprised them.
"If I'm in Pasco or Hillsborough, already irritated at Pinellas for using all this water, I see this legislative initiative, and I'm upset, thinking Pinellas is going around behind my back trying to set water policy for the region," said Pinellas Commissioner Bob Stewart.
"It's a glaring example of staff trying to affect policy without board involvement."
Commissioners ended their meeting Tuesday night by asking Interim Administrator Gay Lancaster to prepare a report on the proposal. Lancaster said she didn't know about the proposal until Tuesday.
Several commissioners said they didn't even know that Tallahassee lawyer Fred McCormack, the lobbyist who co-wrote the proposal, works on a contract basis for the county for $185 an hour.
"I wouldn't know Fred McCormack if he fell off that wall," said Commission Chairman Calvin Harris.
McCormack said he and attorney Chip Fletcher, also a contract lobbyist for Pinellas on water issues, developed the proposal with Talley and Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers. But it wasn't clear who suggested it first. Talley wouldn't say and Fletcher and Stowers didn't return calls.
"We made some assumptions that we were consistent with prior positions of the board," Talley said.
E-mails of an early draft also went to Joe Morrissey, a county attorney, and Elithia Stanfield, the county's full-time lobbyist, but McCormack said they had little involvement. Stanfield said Wednesday that she didn't know about it and rarely works on water issues because they are so complex. Stanfield said she regularly seeks input from and writes reports to commissioners and presents county priorities to them before each legislative session. Commissioner Susan Latvala, who also is on the Tampa Bay Water board, learned about the proposal Monday -- not from her staff, but from Sonny Vergara, Swiftmud's executive director.
"He said, why was Pinellas County doing this to him?" Latvala said. "I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' "
Although McCormack disagreed, Vergara said Wednesday that no one did them the courtesy of telling them about the initiative.
"When it was discussed in Tallahassee with our people up there, it was a done deal," Vergara said. "It has already been proposed and discussed with several legislators. We didn't know anything about it. If anybody is suggesting that we knew about it and approved of this in advance, they are totally mistaken. It's just not true. We heard about it in the street."
The proposal would have applied to all state water districts, but had an immediate impact on Swiftmud. It said that if a water district issued an emergency order after Jan. 1, 2001, requiring a permittee to supply water to another user, it could not fine or punish the permittee for using too much water as a result. Swiftmud passed such an order requiring Tampa Bay Water to supply water to the city of Tampa, causing Tampa Bay Water to pump more water than its permit allows.
Some said Wednesday the situation may have been may be a consequence of recent changes in the county. Commissioners are adjusting to a seven-member board, three new commissioners and the retirement last fall of Fred Marquis, county administrator for 22 years.
"This is the fallout from a county government that was really controlled by a few people," Morroni said. "There could be more things coming out as we open this government up to the people."
But when asked if, during his tenure, a Pinellas staff-generated initiative would ever go to Tallahassee without commissioners' approval, Marquis said: "Never. If it was a staff initiative, we always took it to the board first."
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