10 News Investigators: Tampa's Interim Chief Financial Officer Sonja Little makes big bucks and skirts rules

2:06 PM, Dec 18, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida -- When it comes to calculating how much money the city of Tampa has, Sonja Little is the financial guru watching over the almost $800 million budget.

Little said, "My intent is to serve the city to the best of my ability and help the administration, the council, carry out the overall objective of the city."

But what doesn't add up is that Little, who was hired as chief financial officer in April of 2011 for $160,659, lives in a house located in Hillsborough County, even though the city charter states department heads must live in the city.

When we asked Little about it, she said, "Yes, sir, you are exactly right, and you cannot imagine how difficult that has been for me."

While it may be difficult for Little to live outside the city, she said she has no plans to sell her home because it has decreased in value in the current market.

According to Little, "I have several properties and several options I can work with my family. I have in the works several opportunities, none of which have generated the level [of interest] we need for it to make it prudent for us to move."

When 10 News asked Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn about the issue, he said, "I'm more concerned about competency than residency, and I think we are living up to what the charter says."

According to Buckhorn, Little is complying with the charter because she has the title of interim CFO. Little said, "I don't want my title to be interim. We want to make it permanent."

However, when we pointed out to Little she wasn't getting an interim salary, she quickly replied, "I'm doing a permanent person's job and then some."

And Buckhorn said because Little took a salary cut to come from the private sector to work for the city, he can't ask her to take a huge loss on selling her home in a depressed economy.

When we asked Buckhorn how long can she be interim CFO, he told us, "I think you can be interim as long as the mayor allows you to be interim."

We asked the mayor if she can be interim CFO for his entire term. Buckhorn said, "I don't think that will happen. I would prefer it not happen, but I'm also not willing to ask someone to pay a severe financial penalty for their willingness to serve  when we are abiding about what the law calls for."

But former Tampa city council member and University of Tampa professor Dr. Scott Paine, who specializes in government ethics, said while everyone seems to like Sonja Little, and by all accounts she is doing a great job, it is wrong to bend the rules.

According to Paine, if you have a policy, especially a policy that effects senior level officials, and you don't ultimately enforce that policy, it has a ripple effect throughout the organization.

However Buckhorn said, "Well, I think he's wrong. I think she lives six miles outside the city limits. I think she has every intention of moving into the city. I think she is abiding by what the law allows, which is she is the interim CFO."

Whether it's six miles or 6,000, the fact is Little is helping make policy that doesn't affect her because she doesn't live in the city.

Sonja Little, who was made aware of the policy when she took the job, is not the first department head to try to skirt the residency requirement. The city of Tampa's former Human Resources director, Sara Lang, retained the title of interim H.R. director because she didn't live in the city.

After our story, Lang, who refused to move from St. Petersburg to Tampa, took a demotion and pay cut so the city could hire an H.R. director willing to comply with the city charter.

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