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Hernando commission eliminates liability waivers for members of boards, committees

Several months ago, when the majority of the commission refused to pay the legal fees of Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut, the liability waiver policy came under scrutiny.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Several months ago, when the majority of the commission refused to pay the legal fees of Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut, the liability waiver policy came under scrutiny.

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission took a step back Tuesday from requiring members of advisory boards and committees to sign liability waivers.

The recent controversy over the waivers had caused several members of boards to quit or threaten to quit over fear that they would not be protected by the county as they performed their duties.

Commissioners agreed to a new volunteer policy that still requires regular volunteers to sign a waiver of liability, but not the volunteer members of advisory boards or committees. Language was added to require all volunteers to agree to background checks, go through orientation and get job-specific training and job descriptions to better prepare them for their duties.

The old policy was approved several years ago, but it was not routinely enforced. It wasn't until several months ago, when the majority of the commission refused to pay the legal fees of Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut, that the waiver policy came under scrutiny.

Schraut is facing a defamation lawsuit brought by an airport tenant, and the majority of the commission decided that the comments he made about the tenant were outside his role as chairman.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes had led the discussion at that time, emphasizing that people representing the county should think before speaking in public or to the media.

But on Tuesday, Dukes, as the newly minted commission chairman, said it was the County Commission's fault that it had lost several advisory board members who felt unprotected if they signed the waiver.

He was countering an argument made by Commissioner Diane Rowden, who contended that the commission should not reappoint Aviation Authority member Derrill McAteer because he had quit the board not once, but twice, and was now asking to be reconsidered, though he was no longer on the list of candidates for the commission to consider.

"We caused this,'' Dukes said. "We have to be held accountable for this.''

Commissioner Dave Russell noted that McAteer had told him he only quit because of his concerns over the waiver issue.

Ultimately, Rowden ended her argument.

"I can count (votes),'' she said. "I'm not with the slow-reading group.''

The board unanimously reappointed McAteer.

Rowden did suggest that the county might consider taking another applicant — aviator and retired sheriff's Deputy Steve Klapka — as an alternate for the Aviation Authority.

Several residents also suggested that the system of appointing members to advisory boards might need to be reviewed and that the boards might benefit from new blood and term limits.

Hearing the ideas, County Administrator Len Sossamon said staffers could look at some of them and bring back suggestions at a future meeting.

Commissioners also reappointed and appointed new members to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Arts Council and the Port Authority. And they asked county staffers to notify former and current members of advisory councils who quit or threatened to quit about changes in the waiver policy.

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

In other business, the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday:

• Voted, at the urging of the Hernando County Arts Council, to take on the primary sponsorship of the annual Art in the Park event, using money from the reserve of the Tourist Development Council. The $2,500 donation makes the county the prime sponsor of the event, which is slated for March 15 and 16 at Tom Varn Park in Brooksville.

• Approved spending $155,000 to purchase 7.7 acres on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, adjacent to Parson's Creek, for drainage work in south Brooksville. The purchase will allow the county to continue to improve drainage in the flood-prone neighborhood as part of a master plan developed several years ago.

• Heard County Administrator Len Sossamon outline his economic development strategies, ranging from following up on leads and going to trade shows to talking to a former contact in the mall-building business. Commissioners also tweaked a proposed contract addendum based on Sossamon's new role as economic development director. Instead of saying the job would end in six months, they agreed the dual job will be evaluated in six months and extended if both the commission and Sossamon agree. He will earn an additional $3,333 per month for the added duties.

• After some discussion, elected Wayne Dukes to be commission chairman for 2014, replacing Dave Russell. The vice chairman will be Commissioner Nick Nicholson. On a divided vote, Diane Rowden, the only Democrat on the commission, was elected second vice chairwoman.

Hernando commission eliminates liability waivers for members of boards, committees 01/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 6:46pm]

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