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Deceiving the public deserves a grand jury

I have to confess, I had not heard of the "fake agenda item" trick before.

Gotta hand it to Rick Baker, mayor of St. Petersburg, and his staff.

Gotta hand it to Jamie Bennett, chairman of the City Council.

This is how naive I am. It never occurred to me that you could use the agenda of a City Council meeting itself to deceive the public.

But at the council's June 19 meeting, they used the agenda to hide the city's decision to chip in $12.7-million toward a $34.4-million taxpayer handout to Jabil Circuit.

It was cleverly done. First, a few days beforehand, the city staff gave a private "briefing" to each City Council member individually.

Next, they waited until a few hours before the June 19 meeting and put a late item on the agenda, with the fake name "Project Extreme."

They even put it in the "consent" portion of the agenda — items so routine they are approved in a single batch.

The City Council voted it through with no discussion.

Listen:

There are three separate issues here. Do not mix them up, the way that the city hopes that you will mix them up.

The first issue is the loophole in state law that does allow secret negotiations for "economic development." (That was how the city kept the Rays' waterfront baseball stadium secret for seven months last year.)

The second issue is whether it is a good idea to give Jabil Circuit a big wad of cash to try to get the company to stay.

But even if paying Jabil is a good idea, the third issue is that it does not justify the city's deception — sneaking a $12.7-million decision past the public.

If this is not a violation of Florida's law concerning open government, it is a trampling of the law's spirit.

But wait, there's more.

Bennett, the council chairman, said in the paper that he knew about the Jabil deal well in advance —because Baker told him.

That made me sit up and bark, and I'll tell you why.

Last year, supposedly, the City Council didn't know a gosh-darned thing for seven months about that secret stadium deal with the Tampa Bay Rays — because that state law said that the mayor's folks couldn't tell the council.

Secondly, it is worth noting that even a week after this vote, a senior member of Baker's staff publicly denied that there was a Jabil deal.

So tell me: Why should the taxpayers of St. Petersburg believe anything the city says or does now?

It is time for Bernie McCabe, the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney.

Last year, the state attorney convened a grand jury that investigated the county government.

The grand jury issued a constructive and much-needed report —called a "presentment" — that educated the public and recommended corrections.

The perverted secrecy that has grown to typify St. Petersburg's government over the past year and a half is likewise ripe for a grand jury, serving as a public conscience.

Fake agenda items to deceive the public? Private briefings that replace public discussion of public business?

The city has gone too far. The city has lost its way.

• • •

If you'd like to talk about this or other current issues, join me for a live chat from noon to 1 p.m. today on TroxBlog. The address is blogs.tampabay.com/troxler.

Deceiving the public deserves a grand jury 07/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 5:38pm]
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