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Commission natters over meeting details

At issue are the cost and sponsorship of an economic development conference for business and county leaders.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- As Hernando County officials and a group of business leaders prepared to meet today to discuss ways to rebuild a tattered economic development program, county commissioners clashed Tuesday over who organized the meeting and who would foot the bill.

Commissioner Diane Rowden questioned why the invitation to the workshop, titled "Fresh Start -- Great Future," was signed jointly by County Administrator Paul McIntosh and Duane L. Chichester, president of Hernando Progress, the private fundraising arm of the nearly defunct Economic Development Commission. Earlier this month, the county ended its contract with the EDC after months of controversy surrounding the agency's accountability for spending public dollars.

Allowing Hernando Progress to spearhead the event, Rowden said, does not signal a true move forward and implies county government's tacit agreement that the group represents the entire business community.

"Why aren't we out with the old and in with the new?" she demanded during a sometimes-heated discussion, adding later: "It is an elitist group out there. We don't even know who all they represent."

The comments sparked a sharp response from Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley, who said board members, including Rowden, had said "a million times" that involvement from members of the business community will be integral to any new economic development plans.

"If the workshop is being put on for some dark purpose, I'm not aware of it," he said.

McIntosh, who distributed the agenda for the workshop during the discussion Tuesday, said he assumed Hernando Progress was paying consultant KTM.biz to organize and conduct the meeting.

McIntosh said the county had not paid for the seminar, which he said was designed to help commissioners learn.

"What we've tried to do is put (together) a group of experts in this field in Central Florida to educate us."

Meanwhile, the county has commissioned a University of Florida professor to do a $77,000 study to explore options for the best path to effective economic development.

Hernando Progress, which has agreed to split the bill for the study, last week paid its first installment of $12,804, McIntosh said.

As for the workshop's cost, John Ehlenbeck, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and a member of Hernando Progress, placed it between $3,000 and $5,000.

Rowden said she had tried repeatedly since last week to get information on the workshop from McIntosh, but to no avail.

"I was in the dark, too," said Commissioner Mary Aiken, who added she was surprised at Hernando Progress' involvement. "This is news to me."

When Kingsley asked if she objected, Aiken replied: "Object? Sweetie, it's a done deal."

Commissioners Betty Whitehouse and Nancy Robinson backed the workshop once they saw the agenda.

"I think it's about time we begin to start trusting each other and begin to move in a positive direction," Whitehouse said.

But Rowden persisted in her criticism.

"Y'all are missing the whole point here. . . . It's called communication," she said. "I'm saying that there is no communication here."

Later, Kingsley urged the commission to move on and told Rowden to take up in private any communication problems she has with McIntosh, adding: "If you want to make frowny faces, go ahead."

"Thank you for the reprimand," Rowden answered.

-- Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.

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