Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

DeWitt: Hernando commissioners again ignore voters' will

A lot of people are worried these days about creeping autocracy and dwindling democracy in Washington.

But, really, we don't have to look that far. It's happening in Brooksville.

Once again, this has to do with the County Commission's favorite slush fund, the roughly $6 million that remains in the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Fund.

But this isn't about that, or not just about that.

It's about a commission, and Chairman Wayne Dukes, ignoring the wishes of voters and either disregarding or intimidating the officials who are supposed to make sure that doesn't happen.

If you didn't think commissioners could behave more arrogantly than they did last month, when they voted to dip into the ESL fund to pay for the dredging of Hunter's Lake, well, they seemed happy to prove you wrong.

The four commissioners who attended the March 14 meeting voted unanimously to grab $95,000 from the fund to plunk reef balls on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, one of Duke's pet projects.

They did it after Hernando's Clerk of Circuit Court Don Barbee — who made a point of reminding them he also serves as the county's "chief financial officer" — stepped forward to tell them that this apparently violates county policy on spending the money.

They did it after he told them his opinion was based on their own lawyers' analysis of that policy for the work at Hunter's Lake.

And they did it after deciding that it would be fine to go ahead and grab money from the ESL account as long as it changed the policy later.

Next time you get a speeding ticket, ask the trooper for an after-the-fact upward nudge of the speed limit and you'll get an idea of how well this works for rest of us.

Not only that, but also the county policy, written in 1990, was based on the wording of a 1988 referendum, in which voters agreed to pay a small property tax to acquire and preserve natural land — the since-discontinued levy that built the ESL fund.

In other words the policy was crafted to let the county do what the voters allowed and nothing more — which means to change the policy the commission would need to change the deal it made with voters 29 years ago.

Surely, County Attorney Garth Coller told them that it just can't be done.

Nope. He let it happen, and the guy who's supposed to be the bulwark against this kind of nonsense came off looking more like a screen door.

He said later that his staff's opinion is open to interpretation: "This is murky at best."

Actually, part of opinion on which he based this assertion is pretty clear.

Last year, assistant county attorney Joe DiNovo's wrote this about the county's spending of ESL money on the lake dredge:

"Such use would appear to be not only inconsistent with the use of ESL funds on county property . . . but also inimical to the preservation of the natural biota thereof."

Translation: Dredging isn't natural and it isn't preservation. It's safe to assume that, whatever the benefits of this latest project, the same could be said of dropping reef balls in the gulf.

The other part of this opinion, the part Coller relied on, reads like the language of a lawyer similar to Coller himself, one straining to reach the conclusion he knows his bosses want to hear.

Because the county never issued bonds backed by the tax, as the referendum anticipated, the vote of the people is "advisory in nature," DiNovo wrote, and when it comes to deciding how to spend the ESL money, commissioners are "free to disregard the vote of the electors of Hernando County."

Wow.

Keep that in mind next time poor-mouthing commissioners claim they need voters to approve a tax levy to stay solvent.

Most of all, keep it in mind when commissioners, especially Dukes, come up for re-election.

See, not all votes are advisory in nature.

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Published: 02/24/18