Mythology of George Touart. He was not that great

Today the Board of County Commissioners will decide if George Touart will be given a contract to become the full-time county administrator. Touart didn’t finished at the top of the search committee’s list, but he already has the votes of Commissioners Wilson Robertson and Gene Valentino.

For the past weeks, and particularly the past three days, a handful of Touart supporters have continued to pressure the other three commissioners—Grover Robinson, Lumon May and Steven Barry—to give Touart a three-year contract.

Lately they’ve cut their demand to one year…”If the commission will just give George one more year, he will go away happy.”

Touart does not have popular support. In 2010 he lost the GOP primary for County Commission District 2, placing fourth in a four-person race. Yet Robertson and Valentino insist Touart is the best administrator in the history of Escambia County.

I have no idea how today will go. However, there is a mythology that has developed about George Touart and his last tenure as county administrator. Touart has rewritten history and no one has challenged him on it.

…until now.

Myth 1: Touart did a great job managing the county last time.

George Touart was county administrator from 2002-2007. In 2009 Florida Taxwatch studied county finances and found this out about his administration:

• Taxable property values doubled between fiscal years 2000 and 2007 with no decrease in millage rate. During this period the County’s property tax collections grew 92%, nearly five times greater than the combined 18% growth in County population and inflation rates.

• The most significant increase in property tax revenues of approximately 27% occurred during fiscal year 2007 (Touart’s last budget). General Fund expenditures increased approximately 18% in that year as well. These rates are not sustainable and it is recommended that the County make a greater effort to control the growth of property taxes and spending.

• The County’s operating millage rate was higher than the “all county” average (i.e., the average (mean) of all of Florida’s 67 counties) and the three comparable counties.

• The County’s operating millage rate did not decrease despite the sharp increase in taxable property values until the 2007 Legislature’s mandated millage rate reduction for all local governments.

It took the last two administrators to clean up Touart’s financial messes. The county was so top heavy that when Bob McLaughlin took over, the county offered dozens of high-priced supervisors early retirement. One of Randy Oliver’s biggest accomplishments was restructuring the county’s bonds, saving the taxpayers millions.

Myth 2: The press forced George Touart to resign.

Yes, the News Journal published an expose on Touart, but that isn’t why he resigned. The News Journal articles detailed Touart’s failing to disclose business and investment ties with former county commissioner Bill Dickson, developer Neal Nash and R.W. Beck Co.

He never disputed those ties, only that they weren’t in conflict with any of the county policies or state ethics code.

Touart resigned in Sept. 2007 because he had lost the confidence of four commissioners: Gene Valentino, Grover Robinson, Kevin White and Marie Young. He resigned before he was fired.

In a 2009 interview with this paper, Touart said he thought had a deal to stay on the payroll until he was vested in the state retirement system. The commission rejected the deal when it came to vote.

Valentino helped the State Attorney’s office try to catch Touart in bribing the commissioner over proposed park property in his district. The commissioner tried to get Touart to say he would guarantee the sale if the county gave him a severance package. The state attorney didn’t get enough evidence to prosecute.

Myth 3: George Touart was cleared of all alleged ethics violations surrounding his resignation.

The complaint of Preston Solomon against Touart was dismissed in 2008 because Solomon only provided the PNJ articles as his evidence. The actual investigation was limited to those articles, reportedly.

What we do know is that the International City/County Management Association did investigate the matter. Its report is confidential and Touart did not released it to county. His resume lists him as former member of the organization. ICMA won’t say whether Touart was censured or forced out of the organization.