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Evacuation troubles re-examined

Commissioners question the suspension of two emergency workers and consider whether a lack of leadership was at fault.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 17, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County commissioners are questioning the wisdom of suspending two emergency management officials in the aftermath of last week's botched government center evacuation.

Several people made mistakes, they said, with no procedures to guide them. It is inappropriate to hold two people responsible at a time when everyone needs to work together to formulate terrorism response policies, several agreed.

"It seems counterproductive to have half the (emergency management) staff sitting at home when we need the staff," Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. "Better to pull together as a team and not point fingers. . . . I really do feel there were enough areas of concern that need to be handled. I would hold all of my employees harmless."

Commissioner Diane Rowden suggested that emergency management official Bill Appleby, not his employees, failed to rise to the occasion. She said she asked him for a building evacuation plan nine months ago and never got an answer.

The fiasco that ensued Thursday after a worker in the clerk of the circuit court office opened an envelope containing a white powder -- which ultimately turned out to appear harmless, based on tests -- only drove home the point that Appleby had not done the job, she said.

"He's the one who should be fired," Rowden said.

Robinson would not go that far. She did, however, note that the commission is responsible for hiring and firing the emergency management officer, and said perhaps the commission should evaluate Appleby's performance.

"Emergency management is a very tough arena," Robinson said. "We do depend upon the person who is in that position."

By policy, the commission has given its statutory power to evaluate and manage the emergency management official to Paul McIntosh, the county administrator. McIntosh rated Appleby a 4.01 on a 5-point scale in his most recent evaluation, dated Sept. 15.

McIntosh refused to comment about personnel matters. Appleby could not be reached.

Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said she was "absolutely amazed" by the chaos that ensued when the Brooksville Fire Department ordered everyone in the government center to evacuate.

No one appeared to know what to do or where to go, and no one came out to inform the group of about 300 employees and visitors, she said.

Usually, Whitehouse said, she would support the charge of insubordination filed against employees who refuse to accept direct instructions from their supervisor.

"But as I looked at the details, I realized there were so many people who screwed up really badly," Whitehouse said. "We need to look at more than these two people."

Emergency management employees Annette Doying and Sue Tolbert were suspended for a week without pay for refusing to go back to work after Appleby, who is trained in hazardous materials response, issued an all-clear for the building.

The ultimate responsibility rests with Appleby and McIntosh, she said. Neither was available when the problems ensued, she said, and no one was appointed to be in charge.

"I certainly think we need to investigate the whole situation," Whitehouse said, suggesting the issue might also impact McIntosh's contract negotiations with the commission.

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said he would discuss this matter only during a commission meeting, if one of his colleagues brings it up. He said McIntosh is hired to run the county, and the commission should not second-guess what happened.

If it turns out someone neglected duties and McIntosh does not deal with it, then the commission should act, Kingsley said.

Commissioner Mary Aiken said she was not fully informed of the problems and did not feel qualified to comment.

McIntosh defended himself and Appleby for their performance on Thursday.

"We were not aware of the situation until 12:30 p.m.," he said. "Once we were made aware, we took command and responded. . . . Mr. Appleby responded appropriately. As far as I know, he was the first to act appropriately."

- Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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