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Commission majority wants debate of White's sexual harassment appeal to be in public

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners likely will discuss the sexual discrimination case against colleague Kevin White in public after all.

County Attorney Renee Lee had requested a closed-door meeting with them Wednesday to talk about how to proceed now that a jury has found White sexually discriminated against a former aide.

But Commissioner Rose Ferlita sent Lee a memo Monday asking that any discussion take place in the sunshine. She said she wouldn't participate otherwise.

"Taxpayers are funding this litigation," Ferlita wrote. "Taxpayers must be part of the process and should be able to listen to the conversations among their Hillsborough County commissioners."

A majority of commissioners reached Monday said they agree with Ferlita's request, closely echoing her rationale.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham said there is justification in some cases for discussing ongoing litigation in private, as is allowed by state law. But not in this case, he said, and the law gives commissioners the option.

"There's nothing I've seen in the Kevin White situation that merits a closed-door session," Higginbotham said. "When we're spending public dollars, those discussions need to be held in public."

Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Kevin Beckner agreed after hearing from Lee that she believes the discussion can be tailored so as not weaken the county's hand legally.

On Aug. 21, a federal civil jury found that White sexually discriminated against former aide Alyssa Ogden by firing her for refusing his repeated sexual advances over seven months in 2007. The jury awarded Ogden $75,000 in damages, but legal fees in the case could push the cost to nearly a half-million dollars, most if not all of which coming from taxpayers.

Lee wants to know whether commissioners want to appeal all or part of the case. In particular, commissioners could challenge the judge's ruling that the county, along with White, is responsible for the costs of the verdict.

Lee also wants guidance on challenging a more than $200,000 legal bill Ogden's lawyer has submitted to the county.

Even if board members conduct the discussion in private, they will have to take any votes in public. White can participate in the conversation but won't be able to vote, Lee said.

Commissioners have received a torrent of e-mails and phone calls about the case, most protesting against the idea that tax money will be used to pay for White's transgressions. Several have urged commissioners not to retreat behind closed doors.

Lee's office has received an oral opinion from the Florida Bar Association that may play a significant role in any decision, commissioners said. The bar said she would need to hire outside counsel for any appeal because her office represents both White and the county, whose interests may conflict.

Initially, Lee had explored whether she might be able to handle an appeal in-house, lowering the county's costs. The bar opinion means the taxpayer tab for the case will go up if commissioners appeal and the challenge is not successful.

"We have to look at the cost factor but also the probability of success," said Beckner, White's lone fellow Democrat on the commission. "Those are the two factors I'm weighing."

That's particularly important now, said Ferlita, given that the county is slashing spending and laying off employees due to sharply declining tax collections.

"At first blush I would say, let's stop where we are," said Ferlita, while saying she is keeping an open mind until she hears the dialogue. "This may just be throwing good money after bad."

White has not commented about the case since the verdict.

Staff writer Justin George contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Commission majority wants debate of White's sexual harassment appeal to be in public 08/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 9:45pm]
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