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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 9, 2004 17 years ago

Bridging the Experience Gap

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Clearwater's mayor bases his campaign for county clerk on stints in the public and private sectors, discounting bad publicity from a botched construction project in his city.

Bridging the Experience Gap

Clearwater's mayor bases his campaign for county clerk on stints in the public and private sectors, discounting bad publicity from a botched construction project in his city.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Brian J. Aungst rattles off his mayoral accomplishments from five years at Clearwater City Hall: Sent an ineffective city manager packing. Added $2.5 billion of real estate value to the tax roll. Got his city named the "sports town" in Florida by Sports Illustrated magazine.

When Republican primary voters look at the choices for Pinellas County court clerk next month, however, they might associate Aungst with something less celebratory: The bridge.

Aungst, 50, whose full-time job is handling public relations at cable provider Bright House Networks LLC, says he has just the right combination of management expertise in business and government to improve on the 24-year tenure of retiring Clerk Karleen F. De Blaker.

"I'm really, really a manager, an executive at heart," says Aungst, who has a master's degree in business administration. "That's what I'm trained to do."

The mayor scoffs at what he sees as the limited background of primary opponent Kenneth P. Burke, a certified public accountant who runs a Seminole law firm and title company.

But the well-publicized problems with a $69 million project to replace the bridge connecting downtown Clearwater to the beach threatens to imperil the mayor's political future.

State transportation officials have ordered contractor PCL Civil Constructors Inc. to replace four cracked columns on the unfinished span. Those repairs could add $25 million and two extra years to the cost and completion schedule of the joint state-city project. How much of the cost overrun and related legal expenses will be absorbed by Clearwater taxpayers is uncertain.

In terms of votes, Aungst doesn't see the bridge costing him at all.

"Data that I have - and I can't say where I got it - shows that the public is aware that it's PCL's fault and problem," says Aungst. "Very few at this time are blaming the city of Clearwater for it."

If Aungst's opinion is informed by polling, the mayor has plenty of money for more voter sampling. Aungst believes his 3-to-1 fund-raising advantage and star-studded list of endorsements confers front-runner status upon him. Naturally, he would like to coast to the Republican nomination on Aug. 31 and easily dispatch Democrat Carolyn "Carrie" Wadlinger in November.

But Burke, for one, isn't willing to follow that course. The lesser-known GOP candidate for clerk has attempted to highlight his perception of Aungst's administrative shortcomings. Those include funneling more than $6 million of city funds to a new Grapefruit League stadium for the Philadelphia Phillies. (See "Burke Tries for Clerk," GCBR, June 11-17.)

Yet, when it comes to talking about what they would do if they succeed De Blaker, the two men sound a lot alike. Aungst praises the outgoing clerk more than Burke, but they both say the office needs to be modernized.

"We'll probably make some changes," says Aungst. "But certainly I want to keep the model of being the watchdog for the citizens there and the integrity, which I think she's done a tremendous job of."

Among the possible changes that Aungst contemplates is privatizing collection of delinquent fines. "It could help tremendously," he says, turning up "some found revenue for Pinellas County that probably goes uncollected now." Aungst says his idea would not require the county to split the take with a traditional collection agency.

Aungst was called for jury duty last year and wasn't impressed with that aspect of the clerk's operation. The mayor says he waited all morning to find out, after being called to a courtroom for voir dire, that elected officials usually cannot serve on juries.

The clerk's office should call only those citizens who will be needed to pick juries on a particular day, according to Aungst. Yet he wouldn't pre-screen citizens who are summoned and offered no specific remedy that would spare citizens from wasting a workday at the courthouse.

Like Burke, Aungst says he would tell the clerk's auditors to chill. The mayor wants them to serve more as a management tool for agencies instead of always hunting for fraud and waste. "It shouldn't be used in any form - and I'm not saying it is now - but it shouldn't be used by anybody as a threat or as a hammer to hold over someone's head," Aungst says.

The mayor prefers detailed agreements on the front end that spell out performance expectations. As an illustration, he contrasts Clearwater's experiment using defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. on a social services assignment with that of the county government.

Both his city and the county hired Lockheed Martin IMS Corp. to find jobs for low-income residents. When placements couldn't be verified, Clearwater pressed for and received a $95,000 refund of the $112,500 it had paid. County commissioners let Lockheed Martin's successor keep $9 million after rejecting a forensic audit that might have uncovered fraud.

"We went after them," says Aungst, who praised Clearwater's air-tight contract with Lockheed Martin IMS. "We were not going to allow them to rip off the public and we got those dollars back."

Aungst says he and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who has endorsed him, have had their spats with county officials. But Aungst says he doesn't take anything personally.

"I'm the kind of person that can say my piece and can still stick up for the citizens and say what I think is right. But then the next minute I forget about it, and we move forward and try to fix it," says Aungst. "I don't hold any grudges. There's never a me-against-them attitude."

The mayor was tested on that score last March after city voters, for the second time in nearly four years, rejected a downtown redevelopment referendum he favored.

A week past the balloting, a referendum foe wanted to use his harmonica to serenade an old friend leaving the city council at the official's final meeting. But Aungst held the harmonica player, Bill Justice, responsible for an anti-referendum flier that surfaced just before the 680-vote defeat of the development plan.

The mayor ordered the Clearwater city manager to tell the 82-year-old Justice, who planned to play "Wabash Cannonball," that neither he nor his harmonica would be welcome at Councilman J.B. Johnson's farewell.

Aungst says now that the incident, which was reported by the St. Petersburg Times, was overblown. "There was some miscommunication there between me and some other people. I apologized," he says. "If those things happen, I apologize. I make amends, and we move forward."

The mayor would like to keep things civil with Burke, who has been accused by the Aungst camp of distorting recent history at Clearwater City Hall.

"Hopefully, my opponent can be like me and try to run on their record, as opposed to innuendos and half-truths of what did or didn't happen with someone else," says Aungst.

Aungst denies that he was eyeing the higher elected office before De Blaker announced her retirement. "People approach me about a lot of things because they like what I've done as mayor," he says.

Ignoring Burke is what Aungst would like to do. "I'm going to take the high road, as best I can," he says. That doesn't mean Aungst will shy away from comparing resumes with Burke.

"As far as I know, my opponent has managed about 15 people," the mayor says of Burke's work for DeLoach & Hofstra PA.

Burke, who says DeLoach & Hofstra employs 50, questions how Aungst can claim to supervise any municipal employees in Clearwater when there is a legal prohibition against it. "It's foolish to say he runs the city of Clearwater," says Burke. "The charter doesn't allow it."

While acknowledging Clearwater's strong city manager form of government, Aungst said: "People will tell you that I've been anything but a weak mayor."

Burke says Aungst's role in guiding the fate of Clearwater was no more essential than his chairmanship of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College. "It'd be ridiculous for me to say I ran the college," says Burke.

Still, Aungst says his administration has fostered regional cooperation throughout the Tampa Bay area and his policy execution is a skill that Burke simply lacks.

"Somebody like that, who's never served in the public sector, is going to be frankly lost when they walk into an operation that's bureaucratic, that's got 620 employees and seven offices," says Aungst, imagining Burke's first day at the clerk's office. "They're just not going to know which way to turn."

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