Do this kind of work long enough and come to accept certain truths about local government.
This is one of them:
Directors and other higher-ups can never EVER go against the County Commission’s wishes and venture off on their own.
This is the most basic rule of county employment. If you’re a department director or administrator, in a position to make decisions and spend money, you simply cannot ignore the board and do what you want.
As John Pricher is finding out.
Pricher is the county’s tourism director. He was placed on administrative leave Tuesday morning and is in line to lose his job after apparently sidestepping the County Commission’s decision to not participate in a manatee education project at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Much of this came to light during Tuesday’s commission meeting, when Clerk of Courts Angela Vick was looking for board approval to pay $50,000 to Madden Media, the county’s tourism marketing agency, for participating in an event at the Cincinnati Zoo’s manatee exhibit.
This is the same project that commissioners said no to in March on a 3-2 vote. Pricher was there so I doubt he missed it.
Not only did Pricher and Madden go on with the Cincinnati Zoo project anyway, Madden divided the county invoice into thirds with the line item left blank. Everyone in the room Tuesday thought the same thing: That was done to avoid detection.
The three commissioners who voted in March against the zoo project — Diana Finegan, Rebecca Bays and Jeff Kinnard — were not happy.
“I find it outrageous any county employee would order a service or supply or anything like that, specifically after this board has said we do not want it,” Kinnard said.
Commissioner Holly Davis, sitting in as chair while Ruthie Davis Schlabach recovers from breast cancer surgery, supported the project in March and said she thinks the county should pay the bill if the service was provided.
She also said the zoo shouldn’t lose out, which was an interesting take.
“I’d be real hesitant to not pay our bills if it’s going to hurt the zoo,” Davis said.
County Administrator Steve Howard wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting, but I reached out for details. Howard said by text that he spoke with Pricher on Monday and gave him the opportunity to resign “ASAP.”
Howard said Pricher chose not to do that, so Howard placed him on administrative leave and is recommending dismissal. According to county HR policy, Pricher’s fate rests in a predetermination conference hearing.
The fact that it all played out in a public county commission meeting suggests the decision-makers are pretty confident of their position, which is:
I’m staying away from the details until we know more, but I want to reiterate something.
I’ve known many government employees over the years and these fine men and women tend to share a common trait: passion for their job.
It’s not easy working for the government, especially if you’re up the food chain. The challenges from commissioners, administrators and the public are nonstop. Their workload is enormous.
They can also get a little opinionated here and there, working close to the action, and not every County Commission decision is met with glee.
County employees simply cannot do what Pricher is accused of doing. Our system of government can’t work that way. If three commissioners out of five say something is done, it’s done. If three say it’s not done, it’s not done.
Employees who think they’re smarter than the elected politicians are headed for trouble. For one thing, few people have more street smarts than county commissioners. Getting elected and then serving successfully takes mental and emotional brawn. Nothing gets past these five.
More importantly, though, is this: We don’t elect people to make the smartest decisions or even the wisest ones. We elect them to represent us. Our extension to the county government is through those five commissioners. Not the administrator or department directors. We hold commissioners accountable and expect them to hold accountable the people whose salaries we pay.
As for the Cincinnati Zoo, the board voted 4-0 to NOT pay the $50,000 bill.
I’m sure we’re going to hear much more about this in the coming days. Stay tuned.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.