Group Therapy with Dr. Touart

touartIf tensions have been rumbling in the undercurrents of the Escambia County Commission, they bubbled to the surface yesterday in spectacular fashion.

It began in the morning’s agenda review session, when Commissioner Grover Robinson—absent, attending an economic development meeting in Panama City—requested an add-on item, with the intent of reopening the county administrator applicant pool and coordinating with the Florida Association of Counties for an expanded search. The commission unanimously rejected the add-on.

Robinson brought the matter up again during the afternoon’s public forum. From there, it got pretty rough.

“If it dies and it goes down four-one, that doesn’t matter to me,” Robinson told his fellow commissioners. “The issue is the vehemency and the ugliness that comes out of this process just because somebody brings forward an idea.”

The real issue is the possibility of Interim County Administrator George Touart taking the job on a permanent basis. The operatic discussion had by the commission yesterday treated this issue to a public filleting.

“The fact that the media chooses to link up, from input from other commissioners, who will remain unnamed, the impression that Mr. Touart and I are somehow in bed together is reprehensible!” said Commission Chairman Gene Valentino.

Valentino invited Touart back to Escambia County government on an interim basis following the firing of former administrator Randy Oliver last fall. Both the Chairman and Commissioner Wilson Robertson—the only two sitting commissioners who voted to hire Touart—said on multiple occasions that the arrangement was temporary. The assurances of Touart’s interim basis were made in the context of a concerned public and media, vocally taking issue with Touart’s return (the interim left the county once before under an ethical cloud).

A search committee is due next week to deliver the commission with a list of the top candidates for the county administrator position. Touart is among the finalist thus far.

On his way back from Panama City for the commission’s afternoon meeting, Robinson had described the search process for an administrator as “the most unfair process there ever was.” He repeated his concerns during the public forum.

“I do believe this has been an unfair process,” the commissioner said, contending that Touart had committed not to apply for the permanent position. “Now they have applied for the position as a sitting county administrator when they said they weren’t going to do that.”

Valentino deflected concerns that he and Touart were “in bed together” and said the interim—who was once a former political rival—was a friend and competent administrator.

Robertson also took the opportunity to comment on Touart.

“George has probably been the most successful and the best administrator I’ve ever worked with,” Robertson said. “George would have probably been here forever, if it wasn’t for that incident he resigned over.”

Touart also weighed in. He disputed Robinson’s claim that he had said he would not be applying for the permanent position, and that he had decided to apply only after the search was extended and he felt the applicant pool lacking.

“So, yes, I applied the third time this job was advertised,” Touart explained, “because I said, ‘you’re just as qualified and no one loves this county as much as you do.”

The interim also said that he had done nothing wrong during his previous stint as county administrator and had regrettably made the decision to resign due to “the pressure of the news media.”

Touart, citing his improving health and “insight into the county,” told the commission he was qualified and ready for the permanent position. He said he was the right applicant to address the issues currently facing the county.

“These decisions are going to require someone sitting in this seat with insight into the past to make the decisions for the future,” Touart told them.