Monday, April 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: Hernando's decaying democracy

There is apparently a new rule for people petitioning Hernando County commissioners — you can be seen, but not heard.

Last year, this new rule did in a drone research application at the county-owned airport; education impact fees; and most recently, fluoridating the public water supply. In each case, they were done in (but later reversed in the case of the airport research) by a close-minded commission majority unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints supported by economics, science or even a consultant's report compiled at the request of commissioners and partly paid for by the county.

The latest case of ignoring the facts in favor of expediency came last week when Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes allowed 17 fluoride opponents up to three minutes each to address the board during routine public comment, then cut off the audience when commissioners reached the actual agenda item that asked whether county staff should investigate the cost and implementation of fluoridating water.

Two sides to every issue? Not in these chambers. Dukes' actions meant public health officials and dental hygiene students from Pasco-Hernando State College did not have the opportunity to address the board to refute the erroneous claims and outrageous myths passed off as facts.

Too bad. Accurate information was in short supply. (For instance, the Times fact-checking affiliate, Politifact.com, debunked the claim that Nazis used fluoride in World War II concentration camps and rating the statement as "Pants on Fire'' in October 2011.)

While fluoride proponents got the right to remain silent, at least everybody got to stand up when the chairman asked who favored the proposal. Yet, earlier the commission listened to anti-fluoride comments from people who declined to provide their names or addresses for the public record. How sad. "My name's not important'' carried more sway than Robin Wright, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County.

Commissioners should be embarrassed. Only Commissioner Diane Rowden, the lone fluoride advocate on the board, comprehended how poorly the board had treated the public.

"It's our responsibility to listen to the people, whether we like it or not, and then we make our decisions based on the facts,'' she chastised other commissioners.

It, too, fell on deaf ears.

"I'm not going to discuss that,'' Dukes answered. "Point taken.''

But, here's what Dukes should discuss. Actions like his are the very reason state legislators acted last year to require reasonable public comment periods during local government meetings. The law also requires locally elected officials to be briefed on ethical behavior.

Standing up for a head count, regardless of the county attorney's blessing, is not a suitable substitute for public commentary and it discourages a thorough public debate of an imperative topic.

Dukes and Commissioners David Russell, Jim Adkins, and, in particular, Nick Nicholson showed the audience their disinterest in a public dialogue that might be inconvenient or contrary to their own preconceived notions. Nicholson didn't even try to hide his disdain for hearing from people advocating for fluoride. He tried unsuccessfully to cut a planned 20-minute presentation in half.

"I don't want to sit here and listen to this,'' he told his fellow commissioners.

Astute listening skills should be a prerequisite for elected public office. But not in Hernando County, and not when the message is disagreeable with the tea party crowd who offered up their own rationalizations for ignoring a public health concern.

Children in poverty? There's plenty of free clinics to help.

Cavity prevention? Not with poison.

Lowered IQ? (Insert your own joke.)

The commission majority did a disservice to the public and delivered an unmistakable message to half the room Tuesday afternoon: Your facts don't matter. We've already made up our minds.

The decay didn't stop at tooth enamel. The majority of the Hernando County Commission just chipped away at participatory democracy.

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