BROOKSVILLE – When Frank McDowell took his first government job, his boss gave him three rules.
Follow the ordinance book and interpret the regulations as best you can.
Don’t take any gifts from anyone because if you do, they’ll think they own you and can get special favors.
Don’t lie, because if you do, you’re out the door.
Those words to work by came from Dick Radacky, who had hired McDowell as landfill foreman in Pasco County. Radacky would later come to Hernando County to work, serving as county administrator, among other positions.
McDowell brought the rules with him on April 29, 1985, when he began his first post in Hernando County as a commercial site plan coordinator. McDowell says the tenets, which he has passed on to every one of his new hires, have helped carry him through a nearly three-decade long career, including 11 years in what is often considered one of the least popular gigs in government: code enforcement director.
Tomorrow, McDowell retires after 28 years at the age of 56.
He says he feels confident that his staff and officers have helped him leave the county better than he found it.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” McDowell said Monday, just before he started packing up the plethora of Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Florida Gator and Elvis memorabilia in his corner office of the government center’s first floor. “They do a great job, and a lot of times it’s not easy working for government.”
McDowell did the best a person could do in the job, striking a balance of firmness and equanimity, Radacky says.
“No matter what decision you make, you’ve ticked off somebody,” Radacky said. “He’ll stick to his guns. He won’t back down. But you also have to have an element of fairness to go along with that, and he is fair.”
Since he started, McDowell has seen nine county administrators, eight deputy administrators (serving in that role himself for a few months) and 26 county commissioners.
Current Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings was planning and zoning director in 1985 and McDowell’s first boss. Since then, Jennings said McDowell has become a go-to guy for administrators trying to deal with, as Jennings put it, “touchy issues.”
“You can always count on him to take whatever you gave him and follow through,” Jenning said. He cited an instance a few years ago when McDowell, at the request of then-administrator Gary Adams, helped fix management problems at the county landfill.
McDowell, a native of Atlantic City, N.J., said he is proud of his work in the 1990s on the county’s Development Review Committee, ensuring that projects were constructed according to county code. That committee gave way to the Commercial Compliance Review Committee, for which McDowell served as a moderator.
McDowell is also pleased with the progress of the county’s Animal Services department, which he said has come out of the “Stone Age” in recent years. He oversaw the construction of the new facility on Oliver Street in Brooksville, and he helped develop a mechanism for the department’s trucks that load large dogs to save staffers from strained backs.
There were challenges.
In the early 1990s, during a tough budget year, then-administrator Chuck Hetrick told McDowell that the code enforcement department would not be getting any funding and that McDowell would have to come up with ways for the department to be self-supporting.
So McDowell put in place a $25 administrative surcharge. Essentially, residents had to pay for notifications that, say, their property was overgrown or needed to be cleared of junk. If they didn’t, the county put a $300 lien on the property.
The money came in alright – some $17,000 in just a couple of months, McDowell recalls. But during a public hearing on the matter, infuriated residents packed the commission chambers to complain.
“They told us we were the Gestapo,” he said. The board told McDowell to undo the policy and to return the money that had been collected.
In 2005, McDowell found himself pitted against L.B. Richards, owner of a junk-strewn property on U.S. 19 north of Weeki Wachee known to locals as Hubcap City. It was a mess but also a well-known local landmark and, since it existed before the county’s zoning code was established in 1972, had been grandfathered in.
McDowell found evidence that Richards had expanded his operation, though, which gave him grounds to haul his junk away. Richards didn’t give up without a fight, going so far as following county workers to the landfill to retrieve the detritus they’d just taken from his property.
But the most trying experience came in 1994, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into the building department, which was under McDowell at the time, and allegations that McDowell had shown favoritism to local developers by speeding their permits through the system.
“You can go back as far back in my record as you want,” McDowell recalls telling investigators, “but you’re not going to find anything.”
“I knew in my heart I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. About six months later, FDLE cleared him of all wrongdoing.
Jennings said Code Enforcement Supervisor Mark Caskie, who McDowell groomed as his replacement, will serve as interim director. The position could be eliminated, though, as the county considers way to reorganize and become more efficient, Jennings said.
McDowell said he is most proud of his 25-year marriage to his wife Peg, and of their 30-year-old son Jeff, who specializes in video forensics at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office and now has a daughter of his own.
The couple live in a sprawling rancher McDowell helped build on a two-and-a-half acre plot of land on Anderson Snow Road. Peg, a former law office manager, also is retired.
McDowell says he plans to do a lot of fishing and will continue to cook for community events on Bear’s Monster Grill, a gigantic mobile kitchen he built with Fire Chief Mike Nickerson. The McDowells also plan to travel, with plans to head to Hawaii later this year.
They will likely move in the next five years, McDowell said.
“Something smaller,” he said, then smiled and added,” but with some place I can store the grill that’s legal so I don’t get in trouble with code enforcement.”
Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286 or [email protected]