Hillsborough moves toward tougher ethics, open records rules after Go Hillsborough controversy
TAMPA — Questions swirling around a critical Go Hillsborough contract this summer resulted in hundreds of public records requests from media and concerned citizens to commissioners and county staff.
Now, commissioners say they need better systems in place so the next time they’re inundated with requests for documents, emails and text messages they don’t miss anything.
Under a 2011 statute, the county administration is required to follow strict protocols for fulfilling records requests, but commissioners were exempt, Commissioner Ken Hagan said. In a 7-0 vote, commissioners asked for a draft proposal that would force their own offices to go through a similar process.
Hagan put forth the proposal after noting the county had 466 records request since June 1, and just 172 during the same time period last year. Many of those requests were related to the county’s transportation referendum and a $1.35 million contract awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Critics of the referendum, known as Go Hillsborough, have surmised that the Parsons contract was awarded because the company was a client of Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relations consultant with ties to several influential political figures. Leytham was hired as a subcontractor on the deal.
Hagan, who is close to Leytham, was at times at the center of the controversy. Last week WTSP 10 News reported that Hagan failed to turn over text messages and emails to Leytham sent from private accounts, despite public records requests from the TV station. Hagan said his staff never asked him to check his personal messages.
“It is becoming crystal clear we need to strengthen our process of handling requests,” Hagan said.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said new systems and processes weren’t enough. He also wanted each commissioner to go through additional ethics training, too.
“Face it guys, the four hours we’re doing now is a joke,” Higginbotham said, referring to the fact that commissioners now just have to check a box that indicates they watched the training videos.
Higginbotham wanted the training doubled to eight hours and conducted in public by county staff, but that plan received pushback from other commissioners who said the increase was arbitrary and burdensome. Ultimately, they voted to ask the county attorney’s staff to come up with best practices for ethics training.
“I’m starting to feel like I’m being penalized for someone else’s lack of knowledge of what the ethics laws,” Commissioner Victor Crist said. “It’s kind of like forcing me to go through driver’s ed again, and I haven’t gotten a ticket.”
During public comment, community activist George Niemann said it was it ironic that the call for change was coming from Hagan, who failed to initially comply with the WTSP request.
“It took a scandal to force our commissioners to follow the law,” Niemann said. “How sad is that?”