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Hernando County clerk, administrator at odds over private meetings

BROOKSVILLE — When Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai and finance director Amy Gillis met one-on-one with county commissioners two months ago in the office of her attorney Tom Hogan, her message was clear.

It's time, she said, for everyone in county government to "step up.''

With tax revenue in its fourth year of free fall and the board still debating issues such as the Little Rock Cannery, Nicolai said, the county needed a broader plan to shrink government.

That was the job of County Administrator David Hamilton, she said at the time, in comments construed by some as an effort to push Hamilton, with whom she had locked horns in the past, out the door.

Those private meetings also generated concerns about the handling of public business behind closed doors.

Now, with the commissioners again focusing on budget issues and the size and role of county government, Nicolai has set a new round of sessions next week where the county's five elected constitutional officers as a group will meet privately with each commissioner who chooses to attend.

"We need to have frank discussions with them,'' Nicolai said Thursday.

Those private meetings came as a surprise to Hamilton.

After learning that someone from Hogan's law firm was seeking to set meetings with individual commissioners again, he asked Nicolai in an e-mail Monday about them.

Nicolai replied in an e-mail, "The Hogan Law Firm represents the Clerk, Tax Collector and the Sheriff.'' She added that someone from her office would set up the meetings.

Hamilton had his own suggestion: Why not meet in the open?

"Since the issue as we understand it is related to the budget, why not come to the county board workshop on May 3 where we can all discuss our issues and concerns as elected/appointed officials in one room under the Sunshine Law?'' Hamilton wrote.

"As you have indicated in the past, we need to be taking a long-range approach to our budget, given the continuing loss of revenue,'' Hamilton wrote. "If we make our presentations as a group, the public will have assurances that this is our organizational approach.''

Nicolai responded that the constitutional officers were willing to go to the public meeting, but wrote that all five of them had determined that they wanted private meetings with the commissioners.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis, she wrote, was leading the charge.

On Thursday, Nienhuis denied being the leader of any such movement.

"As we enter into this difficult budget season, the constitutional officers wish to work with each other, and with the County Commission, to develop budgets which will allow each of our respective offices to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible,'' Nienhuis said in a written statement to the St. Petersburg Times.

It is not just government officials who have been meeting privately with commissioners about the budget in recent weeks.

Last month, commissioners were called individually to meet with the leadership of the county's Republican party. All five commissioners are Republicans.

The budget strategy Hamilton has shared with the County Commission and leadership team includes splitting the $5.2 million revenue shortfall between the county board departments and the constitutional officers. In the past several years, the board departments had to absorb a much larger percentage of the budget shortfall hit than the constitutional officers.

Nicolai said the county's plan has not been shared in detail with the constitutional officers but she said she has a problem with the method of choosing the cuts, a problem she shared with Hamilton.

"Why would you ever cut across the board unless you're cutting low-hanging fruit?'' Nicolai said.

She noted that she hated to see the constitutional officers pitted against county departments. County officials, she said, need to decide what a down-sized government looks like, make the cuts and move on, she said.

"As (Hernando County's) CFO, I'm very concerned that we're going into the fourth year using reserves and downsizing government with no real plan,'' Nicolai said. "We've still got a TV station and a cannery. Where the discussion of priorities?''

Hamilton said he is working with county leaders to be ahead of schedule on the budget preparation process.

But as the work involves county departments and constitutional officers who all rely on the diminishing general fund, they all need to work together to shrink expenditures. Since those decisions will directly impact the services to the public they all serve, Hamilton said, ''the best setting for that discussion is an open meeting.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com.

Hernando County clerk, administrator at odds over private meetings 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 8:09pm]
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