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    Resume quells hiring concerns

    But the Oldsmar chamber president could have been more tactful in hiring his father-in-law to head a program partly paid for by the city, the mayor says.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


    OLDSMAR -- When Mayor Jeff Sandler first heard that the president of the Greater Oldsmar Chamber of Commerce had hired his father-in-law for a job partly funded by the city, he had his doubts.

    Then Sandler checked out the background of new chamber business assistance specialist Gerald Custin. He was reassured.

    "Quite honestly, it's remarkable that we were able to attract someone with his qualifications to a job like this," Sandler said.

    A retired Air Force colonel who specialized in electronic warfare, Custin, 60, most assuredly has some fascinating tales. But he is generally mum on the details of his work for the military.

    "There's a lot I can't tell you," Custin said with a grin. "I had one of those jobs where if I told you, then I'd also have to kill you."

    He is probably kidding.

    Then again, Custin was the director of electronic intelligence technology for the secretive National Security Agency in Maryland for five years. Before that, he was commander of the U.S. European Command Defense Analysis Center in Germany for four years.

    On Dec. 11, he began his new job as the business assistance specialist for the Oldsmar area. He'll focus on helping business owners and managers keep their companies afloat through the Business Assistance Program, which is run by the Greater Oldsmar Chamber of Commerce and funded in part by Pinellas County and the city.

    Custin's qualifications were more than enough to ease concerns some city leaders had about his hiring. Custin is the father-in-law of the chamber's president and chief executive officer, Kevin Gartland, whose duties, until recently, also included being the business assistance specialist.

    "I found Mr. Custin to be the most qualified for the position, not withstanding the fact that he is my father-in-law," Gartland told City Council members Dec. 5. "That, of course, is the one thing that we need to bring out on the table. There has been talk . . . that we are trying to slide this in the back door."

    Sandler said he first heard the whispers that Gartland had hired his father-in-law weeks before the meeting. Because that was all he knew about it at the time, Sandler said, he "got upset about it, and I told Kevin that I was upset about it."

    Then he met Custin and saw his resume.

    "Frankly, if that happened because he is your father-in-law, then that's a good thing," Sandler told Gartland at the meeting.

    The city funds about a third of the cost of the program. Oldsmar and the county each pay $23,000 a year for the program, which has a total cost of $72,000. Most of that covers the specialist's $46,000 salary and the rest pays for office supplies, telephone bills and other operating costs.

    "Had he not had those kinds of qualifications, Kevin would have had some real damaging crossfire about why he appointed his father-in-law," Sandler said. "I'm one of those people who say don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

    Council members had their chance to object to the hiring of Custin at the meeting when they discussed renewing the partnership with the chamber. It passed unanimously after several council members said that they had met Custin and were impressed.

    Gartland said he received 10 applications for the position and conducted five interviews before he made his decision.

    Custin, who retired from the Air Force in 1993 after 30 years of service, has a master of arts degree in guidance and counseling from Ball State University and a political science degree from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He attended the Air War College in Alabama.

    His resume includes lines such as "led a team which established all training and operational standards -- and conducted extensive course work -- for a foreign air force."

    Actually, it was two air forces. Which two?

    "Well, I was assigned to Germany and Italy," Custin said with a smile.

    Custin specialized in areas such as learning how air defense systems are constructed and how to limit their effectiveness. He still has military security clearance, so he is circumspect when talking about his previous duties. Asked about the NSA, he said, "They do some neat stuff."

    On electronic warfare, he said, "It's fascinating."

    After spending much of his years in the Air Force traveling to different stations in Germany, Italy, Thailand, California, New York, Maryland and Alabama, Custin said he wanted to be close to family when he retired. But it didn't take long for him to realize retirement was not for him.

    Less than a year after retiring, Custin took a $10-an-hour job as a summer youth counselor for the Pinellas Workforce Development Board.

    Custin worked there for about six years and then moved into positions that dealt with helping businesses fill job openings by linking with them prospective employees.

    In his new job, his mission is to find practical and cost-effective ways to help small businesses, such as matching a business with a real estate agent to find affordable storage space. He also wants to improve the use of technology in the program. And he has to do all this while working with his son-in-law.

    "We'll find our ground," Custin said. "I know that he knows this business and I don't, so he's here to teach me, and I'm here to learn."

    Oldsmar was the first city in Pinellas to approve the partnership that created the Business Assistance Program in July 1998. The goals of the program are to identify companies that may be failing, help those companies and identify and solve common problems in the business community.

    The backbone of the program is a 75-question survey given to businesses to determine their size, how long they have been in the area, any problems they may have and other questions. According to the surveys, a majority of business owners and managers reported that their companies were doing well.

    About 70 percent of the 183 businesses surveyed during a 12-month period ending in June reported that they were doing better this year than they did in the previous year. About 81 percent said they planned to be in the Oldsmar area for the "long haul," according to the surveys.

    The program has helped large, national companies relocate to industrial complexes in the city, bringing hundreds of job openings to Oldsmar. Gartland also played a key role in helping an initiative that increased public transportation to bring workers to companies in the area.

    Sandler said Gartland has done an excellent job with the position. But he should have handled the situation with Custin a little better, he said.

    Gartland should have told council members from the beginning that he was thinking of hiring his father-in-law, Sandler said. And he should have involved the city in helping to ensure that the process was fair.

    "I really came to the conclusion that voting against the agreement would have been a disservice to the city in spite of the irregular manner in which the search was conducted," Sandler said. "This gentleman is top-notch quality. This is a man who has lived one heck of an interesting life with the things he has seen and the things he has known."

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or at quioco@sptimes.com.

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