County Ethics Officer denies scandal he was hired to fix.
Published March 24, 2012 in SRQ Daily
At the March 12, 2012 meeting of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, Sarasota County Ethics and Compliance Officer Steve Uebelacker was the guest speaker. Many in the audience advocated for the creation of the county whistle blower position and were shocked to hear our new Ethics Officer downplay the seriousness of the circumstances that led his new position. Et tu, Steve?
One year ago, a Sarasota County employee was arrested and charged by the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office with accepting more than $15,000 in cruises, hotel stays, gift cards and other kickbacks from a company whose contract he helped supervise. A 2011 National Institute of Government Procurement audit of Sarasota County operations, business processes, ethics, bidding and Information Technologies practices recommended 151 reforms. NIGP auditors described Sarasota County’s internal processes as among the worst they had ever seen. The devastating findings resulted in the firing, reassignment or resignation of numerous County employees, including former County Administrator Jim Ley.
Our new Ethics Officer told CONA that last year’s debacle was “not a scandal,” that the public’s response was an “overreaction,” and news coverage was “overblown” and “inaccurate.” “Only one person was arrested,” he said. His presentation elicited strong objections and questioning, and in response, Uebelacker refused to answer some questions and unfairly claimed he was being personally attacked. Commissioners in attendance defend Uebelacker and call the tough questioning from the audience “uncivil.” Is this change we can believe in?
The breakdown in local government occurred because the concerns of honest employees, citizens and vendors were suppressed or ignored. In 2010, the county imposed a $2000 bid protest fee to discourage vendors from complaining. Former county employees were punished for objecting to improper processes. They say they were “marked for death” by management—demoted, harassed or marginalized until they resigned or were fired. Citizens who complained were ignored.
The CONA audience’s questions were important and proper. How can our new ethics officer claim “there was no scandal?” The two Commissioners present certainly would have intervened if there were personal attacks. Dodging tough questions and refusing to finish his talk, our new ethics officer only created new concerns about county culture. The County’s destructive habit of discouraging dissent must end. When County leadership embraces tough questions from the public and takes action, we will know real change is in place.