Bob Hunter stands up to Hillsborough County developers

Is he a smart-growth champ or just a double-dipper?

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Bob Hunter is one of those relatively uknown government workers who is wildly popular with reporters and neighboorhood activists alike because of his unique job: standing in the way of some of Hillsborough County's biggest developers.

That's not his job description. Technically, he was/is the executive director of The Planning Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the county's growth blueprint, called the comprehensive plan.

But last week, Hunter put himself into the crosshairs of his longtime enemies when he was re-appointed to the job he retired from only about 40 days ago. Members of The Planning Commission who are for a more aggressive stance on building new homes and businesses in the county screamed bloody murder when it looked like Hunter had engineered his retirement and return just to enjoy double-dipping, or collecting a government pension while also getting a salary for the job that is paying the pension.

Thank the state's screwed up pension rules, which the St. Petersburg Times has pointed out costs taxpayers $300 million annually for double- and triple-dippers. The law allows a public servant to retire and be eligible for pension payments, as long as that retirement lasts more than 30 days.

What Hunter did was perfectly legal. But it got the news media on his butt, especially 10 Connect's Mike Deeson, who dug up old e-mails between Hunter and the commission's legal counsel that seemed to show that his retirement-return was planned all along" "In the [2006] e-mail, the Planning Commission lawyer tells Hunter his plan to get a promise to be rehired before he left, wouldn't work. The e-mail says, 'It appears giving you any kind of commitment to rehire you after the DROP period has significant risk for the agency and you personally.'"

Hunter now gets, in addition to his salary, $41,796 every year for the rest of his life and he will get a one-time payout from the Florida Retirement System of more than $200,000.

But activists, including PoHo correspondent Kelly Cornelius, said the double-dipping faux scandal was a diversion engineered by pro-growth forces to keep their longtime foe from returning.

"We have scandal after scandal here in Hillsborough County that go almost unreported, yet let the most respectable and professional person I have ever come into contact with at County Center do something like accept an offer to return to work after he is retired and watch the vultures pile on," Cornelius wrote. "The MSM has completely missed the boat here and they have fallen right into the trap of the of some of the most unsavory grease monkeys of the sprawl machine."

Cornelius spoke with Hunter, who kept a low profile during the controversy: "I asked Hunter about Guinta's claims of a set-up. Hunter explained that when people asked him about the possibility of coming back he refused to even entertain the notion in conversation. Even discussing the issue might give someone the wrong impression, so Hunter's standard answer was 'I can't talk about that.' Sadly, developer/Planning Commissioner Guinta spun that into making this whole thing look preconceived and the reporters are buying it hook, line and sinker. I usually like what Mike Deeson presents but I think he was way off on this one, way off. He tried to blame Hunter for asking in an e-mail what the rule was back in 2006. What is criminal about knowing the rules? I want to know what my health insurance says but it certainly doesn't mean I am planning to get sick. Spinning this into being about money is also not plausible since I think someone with Hunter's qualifications could get a fat job in the private sector any time and not have the hassle of people like Norman or the dirty politics constantly trying to undermine his work at keeping our Comprehensive Plan intact."

So why is a story about a relatively unknown bureaucrat and a pissy struggle over controlling a planning board important? Because it illustrates just how screwed up we are in trying to match our business needs (especially in this recession) with the community's desire to have smarter growth. And this mismatch exists everywhere in Florida, not just in Hillsborough County. In many counties, the planning agency is totally in the pocket of development, even if planners make developers jump through a whole bunch of hoops first.

Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act failed to bring about a realistic planning process for local governments to use in shaping and controlling growth to their benefit. Subsequent attemnpts to tweak or rewrite that law have either failed or made matters worse. Since we're in recession now and not much development is going on (we have a glut of 300,000 unsold homes on the market already), wouldn't it make sense to take this unique opportunity to reshape Florida's self-destructive growth?

Apparently not, because the leading growth idea being circulating in Tallahassee would actually relax development rules on destroying wetlands and killing endangered species, in the name of speeding more housing construction to put people back to work.

That may be growth, but it's not smart.

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