Chairwoman Priscilla Trace was forced to bring Tuesday’s county commission meeting to an abrupt recess during yet another testy conversation regarding the county administrator’s role.
The gavel sounded as Commissioner Carol Whitmore voiced her dissent to a proposed resolution that would reduce Ed Hunzeker’s purchasing power from $1 million to $500,000. She was interrupted by her colleagues as she referred to them holding a grudge against the administrator, leading Trace to break into a 10-minute recess.
In response, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the move wasn’t personal at all, but said that it’s something the board should look at anyway.
“Let’s get away from talking about the county administrator. That is not what this is about,” Baugh said. “Stop making it personal by tearing this board apart. It’s a professional decision and it’s up to each commissioner what they want to do.”
The board is still reeling from the criticism they received when the county staff under Hunzeker did not follow a direct request to bring the approval of a P25 public safety tower before the board.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino proposed reducing the administrator’s spending power toward the end of a recent commission meeting.
“It’s my opinion that the county administrator with his ability to approve contracts up to $1 million is excessive,” she said on Oct. 4. “ It used to be half that, and I say we bump it down to where it was.”
As the issue came before the board Tuesday, Whitmore said she didn’t support the proposal.
“It sounds to me like this is personal. To say that he’s the most powerful ever, I don’t agree with that,” Whitmore said. “To reduce this amount is to say that we feel like Ed is doing something behind our backs.”
Hunzeker has been out of the office this week and was not present for Tuesday’s meeting.
When the meeting resumed, commissioners took a closer look at the proposed change, which was explained to them by Theresa Webb, the county’s procurement official. She explained that Hunzeker doesn’t spend any money that the board hasn’t approved.
County Attorney Mitchell Palmer also said he couldn’t recall a time that Hunzeker exercised any buying power that was not subject to board approval. Commissioner Betsy Benac wondered why the board had even considered lowering the amount.
“Conspiracy theories are fun but what this is about is bureaucracy,” Benac said, alluding to comments about Hunzeker potentially sneaking behind the board to spend money. “With this change, we would have bigger bureaucracy and bigger delays. It just slows us down.”
Webb also provided the board with the spending limits other counties implement. Nearby counties such as Hillsborough County require explicit board approval for purchases of more than $100,000, but board members expressed skepticism with those figures.
“I can’t imagine that they work with that kind of limitation,” Commissioner Stephen Jonsson noted. “Their poor board must spend hours and hours trying to get anything done.”
Benac agreed and said she was uneasy with the idea of the board dealing with contract procurement, as county staff does. She estimated, like Jonsson, that the change would only burden commissioners with the work of county staff.
“If you set the number at roughly half of what it is now, then the expectation is that this board will be reviewing and asking questions and reviewing and making decisions that are currently being made by our staff,” Benac said. “I’m not sureI have all the information to do that better than staff. We can say, ‘This needs to come to this board,’ but the reality is that the staff reviews all of these things for compliance with all of rules and our budget direction.”
County staff explained the administrative limit was doubled from $500,000 to $1 million in 2008, in the midst of the recession, so that the administration could propel development even when the Board of County Commissioners wasn’t in session.
Commissioners voted to lower the administrator’s spending amount to $500,000, but also requested that county staff do more research and come back with betters answers about how comparable local governments, such as Sarasota and Pasco counties, limit purchasing amounts that don’t come before the board.