Agency chiefs may face working closer to home

TALLAHASSEE -- Most agency heads and other top state workers would be required to live near the state capital and compile reports every three months of how much they spend on job-related travel under a budget proposal released Friday by the Florida House.

The effort comes in response to a series of stories by the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau detailing the travel costs of three agency directors under Gov. Charlie Crist. In each case, records showed a pattern of commuting to the person's hometown on the weekends.

"We've seen a lot of reports of agency heads working weekdays in Tallahassee and then doing a lot of travel to their places of residence," said House budget chief David Rivera, R-Miami. "I think a lot of taxpayers want to know that the agency heads are working and living in the Tallahassee area."

In late January, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman reimbursed the state $25,630 in expenses that Crist's chief inspector general found unjustified. Most of the travel tab was for commercial flights between Tallahassee and Tampa; Peterman's family and primary home are in St. Petersburg.

The House proposal requires most agency heads appointed after July 1 to "establish a permanent residency in or within 50 miles of Leon County." All three parole commissioners and the five Public Service commissioners would also have to live close to the capital.

Agency directors also would have to submit a quarterly report of all travel expenses to legislative leaders. Reports would include the justification for each trip, the amount of hotel expenses, the distance traveled and the method of travel.

The legislation spells out 20 state agencies the rules would apply to, leaving out Cabinet-level posts such as attorney general and chief financial officer. A handful of other agencies would also be exempt, though it's unclear why.

Though the bill is not retroactive, most current directors are Tallahassee residents. Only four maintain homestead exemptions and are registered to vote outside Leon County: Peterman, State Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros, Elder Affairs chief Douglas Beach and Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who rents a townhouse in Tallahassee.

In a phone interview, Crist said he did not yet have a reaction to the proposal.

In addition to Peterman, the Times/Herald chronicled the travel patterns of Viamonte Ros, who oversees the Department of Health, and Beach.

The state paid for 55 weekend trips to Miami for Viamonte Ros during her three-year tenure. Beach was reimbursed for more than 80 trips with some time in the Orlando area, near his Winter Park home. Each trip coincided with an official function but also allowed extended weekends at home.

The surgeon general's $3,600 average monthly travel tab far exceeds those of Peterman ($1,800) and Beach ($2,100). Her agency also has the second-largest number of state workers.

Peterman owns a house in Tallahassee and a homestead property in St. Pete where his family lives. Viamonte Ros and Beach each rent apartments in Tallahassee. All are registered to vote in their respective hometowns.

Sen. JD Alexander, the Senate's budget chairman, said he also plans to curtail agency travel. He wants to encourage conference calls instead of traveling to meetings and reduce all travel budgets by an equal amount. But he said he would consider the residency requirement.

"Clearly we don't need folks jumping on airplanes and going home," Alexander said, or ‘‘manufacturing meetings'' to get a state-funded weekend with family.

Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who oversees Peterman's budget, said his travel expenses "looked exceptionally high at a time when we need to be conserving." But, the senator said he is unsure if he would support the residency requirement.

In addition to Peterman, his chief of staff Kelly Layman is also facing budget heat. Orlando Rep. Sandy Adams, who writes the criminal justice budget for the House, has recommended eliminating her position, which pays $137,000 in salary and benefits. Adams also suggested removing the chief of staff for the Department of Corrections, Bonnie Rogers, who makes $147,000 in salary and benefits. The Senate has not included those cuts in its budget.