JAN. 29, 2019- REGULAR HERNANDO BOCC MEETING- Before the Hernando County Commission began their discussion of the agenda item listed as:
“Discussion and Review of County Administrator’s Employment Agreement,” Hernando County residents and business representatives spoke in favor of retaining County Administrator Len Sossamon.
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) President Paul Douglas spoke in support of County Administrator Len Sossamon, “He’s kept the adversarial role away from Hernando County and the NAACP, and I support him staying here. He’s just that good.”
Charles Greenwell of Hernando Beach, who ran in the last election for a board position, said, “Mr. Sossamon projects the image, makes the impression that I’m proud to have for Hernando County. He’s professional, extremely diplomatic, he’s skilled… he has a passion and vision for our county.”
David Gonzalez with WREC (Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative) said, “We want to be here to support Mr. Sossamon … It has a been a pleasure to work with Len over the last several years. It’s really a pleasant feeling to have an issue and be able to pick up the phone, speak with Len and for him to give us advice or support to get a problem resolved.”
Hernando County resident Karlene Nordgren said to the board, “I’ve asked around, I haven’t heard any complaints about (Len) and if he is getting double salary, he’s getting it for less than the gentleman before was.. and he’s doing a bang-up job from what I hear, and I’ve asked around. I think this is a moot point. I hope you keep him. We want him.
No one from the public had an opposing opinion.
Ultimately, the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to terminate County Administrator Len Sossamon’s contract after lengthy discussions primarily about handling of the former Budget Manager (Pam Lee), and other issues falling under his purview.
Commissioners Steve Champion and Wayne Dukes were the opposing votes. They also opposed reviewing the contract when the idea was brought forward by Commissioner Holcomb at the Dec. 18, 2018 meeting. See article:
Chairman Jeff Holcomb passed the gavel and read from a prepared statement.
“My worst day as a Hernando County Commissioner came in November of 2017. Individually we all met with the county administrator, deputy administrator and the budget manager. We were told the county could not pay its bills. Vendors, departments could not be paid, although we were only a month into the fiscal year. We had no money.
“The budget manager admitted that expenses were understated, revenues over-estimated and balance-forward cash was overstated. The county had mis-allocated $5-million. It was very apparent that the budget manager had made critical errors. It was only when other departments alerted her of the problem did it become a known issue.
“The budget manager left the meeting, and I asked if the budget manager was going to be fired. I was told ‘No.’ I asked if this was an honest mistake or if this position was too complicated. The answer I received was, ‘The budget manager didn’t seem to understand what was wrong until others had explained it, and to correct the issue, the budget manager would get more training closely with the finance department.’ Not what I wanted to hear.
“Moving on to April 2018, the Board of County Commissioners Chairman stated he didn’t have faith in the budget manager, another commissioner agreed, and myself also agreed. The next day, the budget manager was fired, and that firing came six months after the realization of our budget problems. But now we know that the 2016 budget had a similar problem with over $1-million mis-allocated. This shows that the budget was done wrong for two straight years.
“In August and September of 2018 the Board of County Commissioners went through a very painful budget process, trying to cut wherever possible, we ended up with reserves short of our prescribed amounts. The deficit will carry to many future budgets, and at this point it will take at least three years, if we’re lucky.
“But based on last week’s meeting, we’re at least $11-million short in the current year’s budget.* We now know that all the revenue we’re likely to get in with growth is likely to be used up in salary increases given out in the past.
“‘The buck stops here,’ President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk, with the inscription meant to indicate the personal responsibility for the country was left up to him.
“Citizens of Hernando County, we have now a complete failure in our leadership in our budget. One of the most important positions in the county is the budget manager. That position accounts for $450 million across all of our county departments. This position was given to a budget manager that was incapable of doing the job from day one. In fact the interview committee did not recommend this hire. They were in agreement to look for an external candidate. The responsibility of this hire comes down to one person, the county administrator. The judgement that was used here by the budget manager was possibly the worst judgement I’ve ever seen in this county. We have a $6 million mistake and only because the BOCC stated publicly, ‘no confidence,’ did the budget manager get fired six months after the problems were known. Why did it take six months? Why did it take public embarrassment to fire the budget manager?
“… This is not personal, and I harbor no ill will, and I take no joy in doing this. But it’s about what’s best for the county.”
The Chairman of the Board cannot make a motion on an item until the Vice Chairman is the acting Chair. The practice of “passing the gavel” signifies the change.
Holcomb motioned to terminate the contract of County Administrator Len Sossamon, and pay his severance based on his contract’s buyout clause.
Commissioner John Allocco seconded the motion, and immediately called for discussion. “Len, I think you’re a fantastic guy to hang out with. I get along well with you. One of the things you are exceptional at is community relations. But since the day I got on this board, we’ve had some issues, and they directly come back to administration.” Allocco again stressed that his comments were not personal. “I was elected to make decisions that are the best for this county, and I’m very concerned about the direction we’ve gone in the last two years.”
Allocco went on to enumerate his concerns. “OMB (Office of Management and Budget) is a huge responsibility in this county, and I’m frustrated at the direction the budgets have gone, that comes back on the board. From almost day one, I had asked you ‘is this person prepared for this job?’” Citing an almost “too easy” budget at one point, and being concerned about some of the percentages, Allocco said he recognized where revenue estimates were high, and was concerned about decreases in millage rates.
Allocco said, “When we found out the budget was miscalculated, there was nothing that was going to be done, and I had to make the suggestion, ‘is there going to be some discipline?’ It literally took an Act of Congress to get significant changes there.”
Other areas of concern Allocco stated were that high-level staff are not being held accountable for poor records, and that the legal department has been overwhelmed with human resource (HR) issues. Large payouts for projects and poor management of DPW (Department of Public Works) employees was also on Allocco’s list.
“We had a promotion of a staff member into a position of obvious conflict, which has put other employees in bad positions, has led to a decrease in morale in the county, and we’re nowhere near close to resolving that … and that’s very concerning to me,” remarked Allocco.
Allocco concluded with, “We are responsible for only two hires as a board, and that’s the County Administrator and the County Attorney.” Speaking directly to Sossamon, Allocco promised to continue to work professionally with him should the board decide otherwise, but he recommended termination of Sossamon’s contract.
Commissioner Steve Champion said he scored Sossamon “fairly” however critically during his evaluation when it came to budget issues, and very highly when it came to community presence. “Did he make a bad decision (in hiring the budget manager)? He definitely made a bad decision, he probably shouldn’t have put her in there. But I believe he first made the decision because he thought she was the right one for the job. We make mistakes. Things happen. You have to hold people accountable.”
Champion said that finding a new administrator would be difficult because “our history is not good here. It is going to be really difficult to find somebody if we’re going to turn around every few years and turn them over.” Defending Sossamon, Champion said, “He’s got five bosses… five of us in his ear.” As well, Champion reported that he’s had conversations with Sossamon as late as 8:00 PM. “Do I think there should be some stern direction to get OMB under control? Of course. I just don’t think it’s in the county’s best interest to terminate him after seven years.
I think he can follow our direction. If he doesn’t, then I’ll support termination. But have we given him specific direction? Some of these things we’re talking about … we need to look in the mirror, because it is caused by this commission, it was caused by previous commissioners.”
Commissioner Wayne Dukes recalled the scene two weeks earlier when a new chairman was elected to the board. “I’m not going to support this because I have worked with large corporations all of my life, and in that time I was in a position of hiring and firing and you did not, did not put a person in charge of staff who had a negative bias.” Dukes was speaking of Holcomb’s recommendation to review Sossamon’s contract prior to the chairman election.
Dukes said, “I can remember many times over the last few years when the money was getting tight … (Sossamon) would say ‘we can downsize parks … or you’ll have to raise the millage rate.’ And the commission said ‘No.’ They said ‘No’ every time … and now all of the sudden, it’s (Sossamon’s) fault that we said ‘No.’”
Dukes also reported an incident that during a recent Republican meeting, where Representative Blaise Ingoglia’s father asked Holcomb, “When are you going to get rid of the administrator?” Holcomb allegedly answered, “I put the paperwork in to do that already.” Dukes ended with, “Folks, there’s something wrong with this … It smells.”
Allocco responded that the decision to review Sossamon’s contract was made by the board, and not just Holcomb. He stated that the decision to hire the budget manager was Sossamon’s decision alone, and that he “went against everything staff had said. And it didn’t work out.”
Holcomb stated that Dukes’ recollection of the exchange with Ingoglia was not true, and that his response was “It’s on the agenda, and as of right now, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
He also maintained that this statements about Sossamon were solely professionally based and not borne of a personal vendetta.
Holcomb added, “I will remind you, that before Commissioner Allocco and Commissioner Champion took their seats, there was a vote to extend (Sossamon’s contract) five years. For the purpose that (this discussion) never comes up, in my opinion. I don’t think it was fair to these new board members, it wasn’t fair to the community.”
Acting as Chair, Commissioner Mitten gave Sossamon the opportunity for his statements and responses.
“When I came here in 2012, every week there was an article in the Tampa Bay Times about the million dollar or multi-million dollar that this county was receiving … depending on which week you look, it was a $6-million deficit, a $12-million deficit … a different derivative.”
Sossamon recalled his first challenge being the merging of Spring Hill Fire Rescue with Hernando County Fire / Rescue (HCFR). According to Sossamon, Dukes told him at the time that there were parameters in place and certain budgetary items regarding the fire departments that “you can’t touch.”
“I inherited at that time, a situation… where a county employee hadn’t received a raise in five or six years or more. I came in where really nothing from an economic development perspective was happening in the county … My record during that term was much better than anything prior to.
“I’ve mentioned at times that maybe we do reductions in force, or maybe we do curtail hours at the libraries, or hours and days at parks and (recreation). Because they weren’t making money, we had problems, but every time, it was, “No, we’re not going to close any libraries, and we’re not going to close any parks …
“Administrators can make recommendations, they can be turned down. Sometimes they get approved. I don’t take that personally. You all make the decisions, you’re elected by the people, and the people will get what they ask for… You can terminate me today, it’s your prerogative, it’s in the contract, pay me off and I’ll be out of your hair.
“Then you can select another person. But whoever that person is, they’re probably going to have to come in and play on the same playing field, and if they’re told ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do (any of the things I’ve recommended)’, then they’re probably going to have the same fate.”
Sossamon concluded with one of his budget predictions coming to pass, “I said, ‘Sure we can borrow from the utilities reserve fund, and if we do, you will turn it into your own revolving loan program. You’ll take the money out, then you’ll pay it back, time will go by, you’ll take more money out, you’ll pay it back’, and that’s exactly what’s happened.”
Commissioner John Mitten, still holding the Chairman’s gavel, acknowledged the discussion as “awkward, but necessary.” Mitten said that he “would echo many of the comments heard on this commission, as well as from many in the audience.” Having received several emails and phone calls in the weeks leading up to this decision, Mitten said, “This administrator has a fan club, and I see why…
Mitten spoke highly of Sossamon’s professionalism and administration capabilities.
“Nevertheless, I do have questions … and I’d like to drill down into the budget. Because ultimately, if we’re going to provide the core functions that government exists for, which is your safety and security… it takes taxpayer money, and it takes good administration of that money.”
Mitten referred to a spreadsheet showing actual revenues, expenses and differences dating back to 1994. Since Sossamon’s first budget year in 2013, which showed a deficit of $7.9-million, he and the commission have seen a 29% increase in revenues. “Looking at the expense side, it paints somewhat of a similar story… a 28% increase,” said Mitten.
Regarding the budget shortfall leading to the firing of the budget manager and the present discussion, Mitten reiterated how the deficit was discovered three months after the passage of the budget in September of 2017. “Fast forward … September of (2018) that budget of a $9.2-million deficit was passed by this board … I was shocked when I saw this spreadsheet. We were told it was a balanced budget, and we voted 5-0 for this $9-million deficit.”
“The question is, how much did the administrator know about the shortfall? Who ultimately is responsible? Should this board hold anyone responsible?”
Mitten’s other questions and concerns were outside of the budget and the OMB.
“In 2014 for reasons that were justifiable or unjustifiable, not arguing either way, the BOCC abolished the Airport Authority. The Airport Authority was then immediately replaced with the Airport Advisory Council in the same meeting … But we didn’t have an Airport Advisory Council in 2015, and we didn’t have one in 2016.”
Mitten said he was stunned to learn in 2017 that the reason the Airport Advisory Council wasn’t implemented was because there “was no consensus.”
“Good governance dictates that the Administrator carries out the vote of the board.”
Addressing Sossamon directly, Mitten asked, “I would like to hear if … you’re willing to give some light, and share the ‘why’ behind what I believe is an unreasonable time frame. It seems quite a reticence to bring this Airport Advisory Council, and get it rolling.”
Sosamon responded, “Going back to 2014 … there was really no appetite really from the board’s perspective, even though they laid the foundation of what could be done, they didn’t want to push it forward. It doesn’t matter if I’m for something or against it … Going back prior to 2014, every time there was a board meeting, people came to fisticuffs. They fought. Literally.”
Regarding the current implementation of the Airport Advisory Council, Sossamon stated that some applicants have not followed the proper procedure, however the irregularities have been fixed, and the matter is due to come before the board at the February 12, 2019 meeting.
“Going back to the $9.2-million deficit, (Budget Director) George Zoettlein told you that we had such a problem…” Sossamon continued to run down the list of possible remedies discussed at that meeting. “The option by the board was to dip into those funds that were the reserves, and roll them in.”
Mitten asked Sossamon if he knew about the deficit, to which Sossamon stated he did. To Mitten, he responded, “You were just told that.”
Mitten stated he did not remember being told about the deficit.
Returning to the discussion of the Airport Advisory Council, Mitten asked Sossamon if he had publicly spoken against the formation of the Council. After some history review between Sossamon’s airport duties in his home state of South Carolina and Hernando County, Sossamon said that he offered his opinion when asked, and had not recently, since he had not been asked.
Sossamon also defended his HR practices within the DPW and wished the board success before the vote was held.