NEW PORT RICHEY — A day after they scheduled a rare private meeting, Pasco commissioners got an objection from an unusual place:
The Pasco Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Bob White said the closed-door session to talk about his budget appeal violates Florida's Sunshine Laws.
"To be clear, I will steadfastly oppose this," he said in a letter to commissioners Thursday. "The budget process up to this point has been handled in the public and it would erode the public trust to go behind closed doors."
County attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said he believes the closed-door session scheduled for Tuesday is allowed under a provision that permits elected officials to discuss litigation strategy in private.
"I don't think it has much merit, but we're looking at the issue," Steinsnyder said Thursday.
White wants the county to give his office another $4 million, in large part to hire 28 new deputies. He appealed to the Florida governor and Cabinet last week after commissioners voted to hold his budget flat at $85.5 million. If the request proceeds past the staff levels, the case will be heard sometime next year.
In his letter Thursday, White said that the appeal process does not qualify as litigation, which is defined as an "adversarial proceeding, basically a judicial or quasi-judicial matter."
He then cited a 1975 ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal stating that the action of the governor and cabinet on a budget appeal is not a judicial function.
"The budget process is not an adversarial proceeding," White said. "We all work for the citizens of Pasco County and are trying to get the best result for them. We share a common interest and goal even if we have different stances on how to get there.
"I call upon the Commission to keep this matter in the sunshine where it belongs."
Steinsnyder cited a 2003 private "litigation assessment meeting" held by Charlotte County commissioners to discuss their sheriff's budget appeal. He also cited appeals of land-use decisions by developers; commissioners can meet privately to discuss their legal options in those cases.
"It's titled an appeal and appeal is generally thought of in most legal parlance as litigation," said Steinsnyder.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said Thursday if county attorneys confirm next week that the private session is legal, he'll want to continue with it.
"If he tells us we have the authority to do it, my feeling is to go ahead and meet in the shade," he said. But "the last thing we want to do is add a challenge that the board of county commission has violated the Florida Sunshine Law."
One topic of discussion if the private session happens? A potential compromise, said Chairwoman Pat Mulieri. She said she'd like to see about giving the sheriff enough money for 14 deputies.
"It's not like we're rolling in dough," she said, "but I wish there was a compromise."
Reach Jodie Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.