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Hernando County to Corrections Corporation of America: Remember the Sunshine Law

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County jail operators wanted to talk over problems with their county contract behind closed doors with county commissioners.

But after a brief meeting Thursday with commission Chairman David Russell, those plans were dashed. Russell said he told a representative of Corrections Corporation of America that he expected them to attend a public meeting with the entire board set for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

"I made certain that they understood the importance of them being there,'' he said.

And just in case anyone was tempted to have a meeting with the board and CCA in private, the State Attorney's Office on Thursday raised a red flag.

After reading a story in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times about the CCA contract issue, Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway had some concerns about the board possibly violating the state's Sunshine Law.

Mark Simpson, an assistant state attorney who handles such matters, contacted Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben on Thursday with those concerns.

Jouben told commissioners and the county administration that he assured Simpson that the commission as a group would not meet with CCA outside of an advertised public meeting.

Russell is the second commissioner to have a personal conversation with a CCA representative since a vote of the full commission earlier this week to negotiate in a public meeting.

Russell said his conversation was "not in a negotiating posture'' but merely to deliver the message that the proper CCA representatives should be at the meeting.

The commission had set the Tuesday meeting after individual commissioners voiced concerns about the jail contract information commissioner Jeff Stabins was relaying to them from CCA.

Stabins had been talking to CCA about ways to reduce the amount of money Hernando pays the company to run the jail. He said his goal was to save money and, in turn, county employees' jobs.

By altering the contract, Stabins said, the county could save more than a half-million dollars and that would alleviate the need for cutting positions to balance the budget.

The jail has been the second fastest growing section of the general fund budget in recent years and has gotten considerable discussion from county officials. That has only gotten more serious lately as the county asked CCA to forgo the automatic 4 percent fee increase in the contract. The county also has withheld from CCA $422,000 in a dispute over the payment formula several months ago.

After the vote to have the special meeting, CCA tried to set up individual meetings with commissioners, but Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings sent out a memo Wednesday recommending against individual meetings.

Stabins met with CCA anyway.

County Administrator David Hamilton and purchasing director Jim Gantt met with CCA to talk about the contract changes late Wednesday and Russell said Thursday that "feverish negotiations are going on even as we speak'' for a proposal to bring to the board on Tuesday.

Russell said he hopes some agreement can be reached between now and then but that he wanted CCA to know it was important to have the conversation with the board in a public meeting.

"The Sunshine Law dictates that we operate in the sunshine when we coalesce as a body to do the public's business,'' he said. "CCA is very much willing to sit down with the commission on Tuesday and negotiate.''

Stabins did not violate either the Sunshine Law or the Florida Code of Ethics by having an individual meeting with the CCA representatives, Simpson told Jouben, but he added a caveat.

"Mr. Simpson said that such individual meetings were fine so long as the CCA's representatives did not act as conduits for communications between individual commissioners,'' Jouben wrote in his memo.

In an unrelated review of the jail costs, local home builder and Republican party leader Blaise Ingoglia is heading up a committee that has met with CCA representatives on the jail costs issue and is expecting to meet with them again.

The focus group meetings are part of the business community's effort to suggest to county officials where costs might be trimmed, according to Randy Woodruff, spokesman for the business group.

The focus groups, which are part of a partnership among the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Realtors, the Builders Association and Hernando Progress, are expected to complete their reports and present them to the County Commission in early September, Woodruff said.

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

Hernando County to Corrections Corporation of America: Remember the Sunshine Law 08/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 7:50pm]
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