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Thursday, Nov 20, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: If you have to ask, Mike, it’s unethical

Published:

Generally speaking, when a government official needs the blessing of an ethics board before taking an action, you can bet the action he wants to undertake reeks worse than a truckload of bovine soil enrichment formula.

Now here to demonstrate the accuracy of that maxim is Pasco County Property Appraiser Mike Wells, who, nearing the halfway point of his fifth, and what has been advertised as his last, term, has presented a sturdy case for term limits.

The questionable thing Wells wanted to do — what he’d done already, actually — is arrange the hiring of his stepdaughter, Rachel Decoteau, for a job in the family business.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little nepotism, at least in the private sector. Word out of the Berkshire Hathaway summit in Omaha, Neb., last week was that Howard Buffett, the eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, was tapped to be the company’s next chairman, and the board of directors popped champagne corks.

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But because Decoteau is being paid in taxpayer dollars — bulging sacks-full of them, at least when measured by others holding similar jobs in Hillsborough County (which is only the iceberg’s tip of the problems here) — it was crucial that the state Commission on Ethics rule on the letter, not the spirit, of her relationship to the boss.

And that’s precisely what the commission did: Wells’ 19-year marriage to Decoteau’s mother ended in divorce five years ago, which, by strict application of the legal standard, also severed his stepparent relationship. This, of course, is exactly how such things work in the real world.

I mean, if your sister divorces your favorite golf partner or fishing buddy, that’s that, right? Your daughter splits from the guy who’s had the Buccaneers season ticket seat next to you the past dozen years, the fellow who’s faithfully bought every odd-numbered round of beers since Brad Johnson pitched to Joe Jurevicius, and your history is, well, history.

Having been similarly disentangled from sentimentality by court documents and the vote of a distant board, the property appraiser was released to employ Decoteau as if she were a stranger selected at random from the New Port Richey telephone book or this year’s top graduate from Certified Florida Evaluator U., and not someone who’s been handing him Father’s Day cards for the past quarter century ... and nobody’s supposed to arch an eyebrow.

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Which maybe we wouldn’t have, except that, well, did we mention the whole bulging package stinks of favoritism?

There’s the salary thing, for openers. As reported by the Tribune’s Laura Kinsler, Decoteau’s $46,000 salary is at least a third higher than that of a beginning appraisal clerk in Hillsborough County, and when’s the last time you heard of any Pasco public employee being paid more, let alone $15,000 more, than their Hillsborough County counterparts?

Furthermore, Decoteau lacks the Certified Florida Evaluator credential required for her position. Wells is undisturbed. There’s a two-year window to pass the training, he says; besides, “You’re better off in a position like this with someone who’s bright, energetic and inquisitive and then teaching her.”

Wells calls Decoteau “top-notch” and says “she’s going to do great.”

All of this might be absolutely on the button. Having come over from the Supervisor of Elections office, where she was a branch supervisor in an organization that stresses efficiency and customer service, there’s little reason to doubt Decoteau’s capacity to learn and lead.

Still, she might be the most qualified non-credentialed appraisal clerk in the history of property appraising, but her start, at least, is tainted by her close association with Wells’ affirmative action program for former relatives.

I mean, not only was no one else interviewed for the position, the opening wasn’t even advertised.

In other words, so accustomed to having his way in his constitutional baronet, Wells didn’t even attempt to camouflage the fact that the fix was in.

All of which makes Wells’ assessment of the organizational flow chart — “She reports to people other than me,” he says — ingenuous and clumsy. Decoteau reports to people who report to her former stepfather, a fact that never will be lost on any member of middle management.

I predict a future of glowing performance reviews for Decoteau, accompanied by a self-inflicted stain on Mike Wells’ otherwise exemplary legacy.

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