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Hernando commissioners spar over procedures with staff

BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners' heated discussion of a controversial proposal for a recreational vehicle resort in Aripeka veered into a debate about their own procedures and how much of their reasoning process must be aired in a public forum.

Commissioner Diane Rowden questioned how county planners could have considered the proposal compatible with the county's blueprint for growth in the surrounding community.

The stinging criticism prompted Commissioner Jeff Stabins to chide Rowden for grandstanding at Wednesday's meeting, saying that when he had questions of staff members, he simply talked to them rather than making it into a public event.

Rowden responded that during land use issues when the commission is bound by the rules of "quasi-judicial'' hearings, all those questions needed to be aired in public.

"I would prefer not to grandstand, but that's your decision,'' Stabins replied.

Later, Stabins apologized to Rowden after County Attorney Garth Coller told the commissioners that the best way to deal with issues related to such proceedings is to discuss them in an open meeting and on the record.

That seemed to surprise more than just Stabins.

"I've never heard that we are precluded from talking to staff,'' said Chairman Chris Kingsley.

Coller said he had brought it up on numerous occasions.

"I have never heard this before,'' Kingsley said.

He said that the county might need to get a formal opinion from the Florida Attorney General to clear up any confusion. Coller said there was plenty of case law already in existence.

He said that it was important that the key issues that commissioners want to raise with their staff need to be talked about during the open meeting so they are on the record if there is ever a challenge of a land use decision. That also allows other commissioners to hear the discussion as well.

It is the same rationale for why Coller admonishes commissioners who have had phone calls, e-mails or direct contact with people related to an application. At each quasi-judicial hearing, Coller tells them that they must base their decision only on what they hear during the hearing and not any of that other information they may have received from interested parties.

While interested parties and the county's paid professional staff are different entities, he said, the same rules apply.

Coller said the safest way for commissioners to operate was to be sure that their substantive conversations with staff members should happen during the public hearing. Commissioners asked if they could have those conversations with the staff before the hearing and then make sure those same issues are also discussed in public.

Coller said that would work as well.

"I try to be very careful'' with information during the land use discussions, Rowden said. "It's important that the answer is in the public.''

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

Hernando commissioners spar over procedures with staff 05/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2008 5:26pm]
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