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Hernando board volunteers wonder about legal protection

BROOKSVILLE — The concerns came quickly.

After a divided Hernando County Commission decided last month to not provide an attorney for Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut, who faces a defamation lawsuit, Commissioner Jim Adkins cautioned that the commission had "sent the wrong signal.''

Most certainly a confusing one.

Since that vote, several commissioners say they have heard from volunteers on county boards, and members of two advisory boards have publicly posed questions about how protected they are as individuals.

Whether they will get the answers they seek is unclear. The county attorney's office has said the county must defend its volunteers, but a majority of the commission rejected that advice.

It's a situation that has left the county's volunteers in limbo.

Earlier this month, Aviation Authority member Morris Porton talked about his concerns during an authority meeting.

"We're all volunteers,'' Porton said, noting that the commission's vote made him feel unprotected. "I just think that was a mistake.''

He questioned whether the Aviation Authority should consider retaining its own insurance to protect members from litigation. He said he didn't know why anyone would want to take the reins of the board as chairman if the person didn't have coverage.

Aviation Authority member Jeff West said the Hernando Builders Association took out insurance on its board a few years ago.

"You can get sued for anything,'' West said.

Fellow authority member Ron Wilhite noted that he has been on a number of boards, but the authority seemed to be the only one without protection for its members.

Just days earlier, Robert Widmar, a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, had asked the same question at the end of a meeting. He asked for an answer from the county attorney's office on what liability the volunteers faced because of the County Commission's vote.

But the county attorney has already answered that question. He did it right before the commissioners voted to not provide legal representation for Schraut.

The county and the airport already have policies that protect their agents, but the policies have specific exclusions for allegations of defamation.

County Attorney Garth Coller told commissioners that letting Schraut retain his own lawyer could cost the county more in the long run.

Case law, the legal staff said, shows that the county is responsible for defending those doing the county's work.

In August, Worldwide Aircraft Services and company principal Michael Honeycutt sued Schraut, seeking monetary damages and an injunction to stop him from continuing to make derogatory comments.

Honeycutt operates the Jet ICU air ambulance company. He contends in his suit that Schraut told a Tampa Bay Times columnist that Honeycutt and his company were "troublemakers, were liars, were bomb throwers and were like terrorists.''

The statements have damaged his business, Honeycutt claims.

But Commissioners Wayne Dukes, Diane Rowden and Nick Nicholson still voted down the idea of the county attorney's office providing Schraut's defense. They said Schraut was not acting in his capacity as authority chairman when he used the incendiary language. Public statements by county agents need to be professional, Dukes stressed.

Florida statutes require volunteers to be protected, but there are exceptions.

The statute states: "The state or its subdivisions shall not be liable in tort for the acts or omissions of an officer, employee or agent committed while acting outside the course and scope of her or his employment or committed in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety or property.''

The discussion of Schraut's legal standing also brought to light the fact that the county has not been following its own policy requiring all volunteers, including those on volunteer advisory boards, to sign waivers of liability.

In the waiver, the volunteer agrees "to indemnify and hold Hernando County, its officers, agents, consultants and representatives harmless from any loss, damage or injury which may result from my participation in the volunteer activities.''

On Nov. 14, the county sent out letters asking 32 members of volunteer boards and 19 other volunteers who had not previously filled out the forms to sign the waivers.

On Dec. 17, the County Commission will discuss what should happen with volunteers who refuse to sign a waiver.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando board volunteers wonder about legal protection 11/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 7:02pm]
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