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With libel suit pending against airport chairman, commissioner points to waiver policy

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County government hasn't been doing everything it could to protect itself from legal liability.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden raised the issue last week when she discovered that the county has not been following the commission's own policy requiring people who do volunteer work or who serve on advisory boards to sign a waiver of liability.

"My question to administration was: Who dropped the ball here?'' Rowden said. "But I don't think we need to be blaming people. What we need to do here is fix the problem.''

Rowden said she believes the policy fell through the cracks. It was approved in December 2011, at a time when the previous county administrator had just been terminated and various job roles were getting shuffled.

Rowden, who was not on the commission when the policy was approved, said she is puzzled that county legal staffers didn't mention it when the commission recently debated the merits of paying the legal fees of Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut.

Schraut has been sued for defamation by Michael Honeycutt, a tenant at the airport. Since both the county's and the airport's insurance policies have an exclusion for that type of litigation, the county attorney's office recommended that the county pay his legal fees.

Otherwise, Schraut would pick his own attorney, whose fees would be higher, and because the county is obliged to defend or indemnify Schraut, the cost to county taxpayers would be higher, the attorneys said.

But a divided commission said no, citing the harshness of Schraut's words for his critics in a column by Dan DeWitt of the Tampa Bay Times. Schraut told DeWitt that Honeycutt and his company were "troublemakers, were liars, were bomb throwers and were like terrorists,'' according to the complaint.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said the language made him cringe, and he told fellow commissioners that those who speak for the county must be professional, choose their words carefully and not be aggressive or antagonistic.

During that discussion, Rowden said Schraut made a personal attack against his critics that was outside the role of someone representing a county board.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson joined the other two in voting down county legal representation for Schraut.

Questions from the Times about the applicability of the volunteer policy to the Schraut case prompted deputy county attorney Jon Jouben to email commissioners to clarify the issue. He cited a Florida Statute that protects volunteers from liability.

The statute actually provides an exception, though Jouben's email does not quote that part of the provision.

The statute states: "The state or its subdivisions shall not be liable in tort for the acts or omissions of an officer, employee or agent committed while acting outside the course and scope of her or his employment or committed in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety or property.''

Concerned about the county's potential for facing a large legal payout, Clerk of the Circuit Court Don Barbee last week suggested to County Administrator Len Sossamon that the county set funding aside to pay for Schraut's defense.

"As your Chief Financial Officer, and based upon the legal opinion expressed by your attorneys, I believe that it would be prudent for the County to set aside a sum of money sufficient to cover any claim later made by Mr. Schraut to be reimbursed for his defense costs,'' Barbee wrote. "The amount of this reserve is best left to your budget office in consultation with your attorneys."

"I can see his logic,'' Sossamon said, "but I'm not sure I agree that there is a need to rush to do that. The county has reserves.''

Sossamon also said he is addressing the concerns about the volunteer policy that were voiced by Rowden. He had not yet determined how many volunteers with the county and its advisory boards have filled out the waiver forms.

He met early Friday with Jouben and the county's risk management coordinator, Cristi Charlow, to put in place a process of getting the waivers signed and the policy fully implemented.

Those who refuse to sign can be let go from their positions, he noted.

In the waiver, the volunteer agrees "to indemnify and hold Hernando County, its officers, agents, consultants and representatives harmless from any loss, damage or injury which may result from my participation in the volunteer activities.''

Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he hadn't even thought about the volunteer policy when the Schraut issue was before the commission. He said he didn't remember it applying to advisory boards. He did note that since the board vote, he'd had two advisory board members ask him questions about where they stood legally with the county.

Russell and Commissioner Jim Adkins have voiced concerns that failing to back volunteer board members might keep some potential applicants from seeking positions.

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

With libel suit pending against airport chairman, commissioner points to waiver policy 11/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 6:42pm]
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