Sarasota County government is busily trying to restore its image in the wake of its purchasing scandal and working to ensure further improprieties do not occur.
Interim County Administrator Terry Lewis has instituted a number of changes and plans more, but several community groups believe more action is needed.
“You can have great policies, but if the (county employees) don’t follow them, they’re not worth anything,” said Cathy Antunes, president of Citizens for Responsible Government.
Antunes’ group is the same organization that sued the county over its spring-training baseball negotiations.
Citizens for Responsible Government was joined by Control Growth Now, Council of Neighborhood Associations, Manasota 88, Siesta Key Community Inc., as well as Gayle Reynolds and Laurel Schiller, in calling for a county ethics code that employees would have to follow.
The code is a six-item pledge that the organizations hope will be adopted. It states:
• All county employees shall at all times place their duty to the public interest first and shall not permit personal or business relationships to interfere with that duty.
• No county employee may accept any gift from any person who does business with Sarasota County government.
• Relationships between county employees and persons who do business with Sarasota County government shall remain on a professional, business basis.
• No person who was a county employee may lobby Sarasota County government for a private employer for a period of two years after termination of the person’s employment with the county.
• All persons who lobby Sarasota County government for a private employer shall register with the county for that purpose.
• Procurement reforms should emphasize fairness, openness and objective neutrality in the competitive bidding process, including the prevention of employee-vendor collusion.
Lewis said he had seen the group’s proposal and would consider it.
“A lot of folks are trying to help,” he said. “We’ll look at everything. Nothing is off the table.”
Antunes said the call for an ethics code is more about the county’s top leadership than the rank-and-file employees.
“So many of the people who work for the county are ethical,” said Antunes. “This (scandal) is a creation of management that didn’t care how the job got done.”
Sarasota County shores up purchasing problems
Terry Lewis was hired as interim county administrator primarily to straighten out the improper, and in some cases illegal, practices going on in the county’s procurement department.
As an integral part of that process, Lewis has created a Procurement Improvement Master Plan.
“There were so many different entities giving us recommendations that we needed to come up with a system to knock them out one by one,” he said. “It’s a tracking system for the voluminous recommendations.”
The purpose of the master plan is to track the progress of nearly 300 steps the county is taking to improve how it enters into contracts with vendors.
Significant procurement problems came to light in March, when a county employee was arrested for accepting bribes from a contractor.
That employee, Rodney Jones, pleaded guilty last week.
A subsequent investigation found numerous improprieties in the way the county approves contracts and pays vendors.
Nearly a dozen employees, including former County Administrator Jim Ley, have lost their jobs in the wake of the scandal.
Many of the questions surrounding procurement had to do with employee’s purchasing credit cards, or P-cards.
County policy holds that for any service costing more than $3,000, a process kicks in that requires verbal quotes and/or written bids.
The investigation found that employees routinely charged their purchasing cards to the $3,000 limit multiple times to avoid going through the lengthy quote-and-bidding process.
For example, an employee who wanted to contract for a service that cost $21,000 would make seven $3,000 charges to pay that amount.
As part of the master plan, Lewis is tightening up the use of P-cards. He named a P-card administrator, Judy O’Brien, Aug. 4; her job is to ensure that all policies and procedures are followed.
Nearly 250 P-cards are in use by county employees. Lewis wants to trim that number.
Last week, the county offered the position of procurement manager to Mark Thiele, who is the procurement manager for the city of Cape Coral.
The master plan also calls for procurement training. Two workshops were held at the end of July for all staff members involved in the procurement process.
Training sessions are designed to review all policies surrounding vendor bids, quotes, P-cards and purchasing orders.
“(The master plan) is critical not only to get things straightened out, but to also rebuild community trust,” said Lewis. “It’s easy to say we’ve done it, but we need to show it.”