Rick Helms turned out after 38 years of service
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING - Highlands County should have been preparing to give a gold watch to County Administrator Rick Helms.
Published: July 3, 2012
Published: July 3, 2012
"Instead, we're kicking him to the curb," Commissioner Greg Harris said Tuesday morning.
Although Harris and Commissioner Don Elwell begged the majority to reconsider, three commissioners voted to fire Helms.
Harris has received hundreds of phone calls and emails, "asking us to do the right thing. I don't want to be part of the embarrassment."
Dressed in a white shirt and dark suit, Helms requested a hearing to speak in his own behalf.
He started in the court clerk's office, in the courthouse basement, making copies for microfilm.
When it was apparent a successor would be needed for the clerk's finance director, Helms returned to college for a higher degree and became Highlands County's first budget analyst. The only computer in his department was a hand-me-down Tandy, and the budget was figured on a calculator.
Helms read a long list of what he's done, the classes taken, honors given, positions held, decisions made.
He was criticized for poor communications, but over the last four to five months, Helms said he met with commissioners 51 times. "And that doesn't include phone calls where commissioners were present."
During the same period, he gave 21 status updates, even while on vacation.
Before he became county administrator, the average score on his last 10 evaluations was 91.2 out of 100.
"Until he met us," Elwell quipped.
During an hour-long presentation, Helms invited eight citizens to come to the podium.
"What you're doing is deplorable," said Ted Best. "I'm talking to you as your employer. You are not getting anything if you terminate him and pay over $50,000. That (payoff for the termination of his two-year contract) is just flushed down the drain. I hope you would consider keeping him on until his contract is over. Nobody is any more knowledgeable about the budget in the state of Florida than Ricky Helms."
The commissioners will need Helms when they start devising the budget, which is starting now. By the time they advertise and bring in a replacement, it will be November, and a new board could be in place, Best said. "It would be well for the new commission to make the decision."
Commissioner Barbara Stewart is retiring, Harris and Ron Handley are up for reelection.
"I think you might have somebody else in mind," Best speculated.
Elwell dropped a similar hint, that the majority of the commissioners aren't waiting until Helms' contract expires in February because they already have a replacement waiting in the wings.
Candidates could include June Fisher, who was named interim county administrator; Guy Maxcy, a former commissioner who is now the DeSoto County administrator, and Mike Wright, who Helms replaced two years ago. Wright is currently the Sun N' Lake district manager.
Helms complimented Fisher as a competent assistant.
The previous commission, which fired Wright, left the decision to hire the next county administrator to the next board. "Why not extend the same courtesy to the next board?" Elwell asked.
Jerry Kingsbury of Lake Placid defended Helms as a moral, professional, approachable man. Kingsbury was embarrassed that the commissioners have been snarky and angry toward Helms.
Nancy Thomas, a former law librarian, said she was astounded by Helms' memory and intelligence. "The lack of communication goes both ways," she said. "Let him finish out his contract."
"He's done nothing but good for the county," said Phil Gilroy. "There shouldn't be anything personal."
During the termination process, commissioners became irritated when questions were raised, said Dale Pflug of Avon Park. It was a surprise when the motion for dismissal came up, and then they would take no comments from the audience. Questions should not be off limits to citizens, he said.
"This decision was going to be rammed through," said Pflug, who attributed the firing to personality conflicts. "Something didn't make sense, a case was not made, and you haven't convinced me."
Helms recalled that on April 9, Chairman Jack Richie told a Lake Placid audience that the county administrator was doing a great job.
"A lot of people remember that," Helms insisted. "Something has happened since then. I don't know what that is." Richie admitted two weeks ago he would have felt differently if Helms had sent an employee with him to investigate a citizen complaint, as he requested.
Helms said he has worked so hard for the county that it caused insomnia and that his wife told him to "turn it off sometimes."
Voice trembling at one point, Elwell went down to the podium to speak, which caused Richie and Stewart to shake their heads.
"I came here today with my mind 100 percent open." He wanted to see evidence that Helms needed to be dismissed, that it was rational to pay Helms four months of severance pay, that proved termination was not a rush to judgment.
"But there is no damning evidence, not one piece of any kind," Elwell said. The evidence is hearsay and gossip, and commissioners are being led astray, he said.
He was convinced they are acting on ulterior motives, and that they already have a new administrator in mind. "You're being lobbied, hard, and that lobby is a small majority," Elwell contended.
Incredibly bad judgment and pettiness got in the way of a fair evaluation of Helms, Elwell said, with Harris nodding in agreement. Although Stewart is one of the most dedicated commissioners ever, he noted, she scored Helms an average of eight. "How can this possibly be anything but personal?"
"We've proven nothing except that our leadership team is setting a horrible example. We have one employee, and we've failed him so far," Elwell said, calling the proceeds a witch hunt. Several members of the audience gave him a standing ovation.
After they voted to fire him, Helms came back to the microphone one last time: "I hope I can control my emotions," his voice quavered. "I want to thank the people of Highlands County for the opportunity to serve them."
The board also voted to accept option one from the insurance committee, which means the county and the property appraiser, sheriff's office, clerk of courts, election office, tax collector, Sebring Airport Authority and county retirees will self-fund their insurance.
Employees may have a slight increase in doctor co-pays, the committee members said.
"We've gone from self insurance to fully insured before," Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said. "A couple of bad years can break the bank."
The committee has to raise the premiums when it's called for, said Handley. "That's where the school board got in trouble."
firstname.lastname@example.org (863) 386-5828