The Dade City Commission has become the state poster child of how not to conduct the public's business. Three months ago, a three-person commission majority voted on personnel moves — without prior notice or public comment — in a meeting that had been advertised only as a workshop. Now, a state senator wants to amend Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine laws to ensure others don't duplicate the clandestine behavior.
Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, announced his intentions during Pasco's legislative delegation meeting Wednesday and filed the bill (SB 718) the following day. It is a welcome intervention to bolster government transparency. The proposed amendment prohibits local governmental bodies from voting without prior public notice except in emergency situations determined by a super majority vote.
"I'm not saying what they voted to do was right or wrong, but how they did it — that's what's unacceptable,'' Legg said. "We all do tough votes, but you have to do it in the open. Don't hide it. It wasn't a transparent process. We just want to make sure it's transparent from now on.''
The Dade City Commission recently adopted their own rules intended to avoid a repeat, but the damage to city government, and the public's faith in the commission, won't be remedied so quickly. On Oct. 21, in a workshop setting, just three weeks after the new budget year began, Commissioners Jim Shive, Eunice Penix and Mayor Camille Hernandez voted to split the job of city clerk/finance director. The ill-advised action, which the mayor had cleared in advance with the city attorney, was not illegal, but certainly detrimental go good governing and public debate.
The trio also attempted to hand the finance position, absent a formal job description and salary, to an assistant who hadn't applied for it. The meddling created a crisis where none existed and ended the municipal career of a highly regarded public servant.
Longtime Clerk Jim Class resigned to accept a job with the Pasco School District and assistant Joanna Akers declined the promotion and asked for reduced workload to care for an ailing family member. The end result was a substantial addition to the city payroll with the newly hired clerk and new finance director earning a combined $99,000 annually compared to Class' $63,000 salary after nearly 30 years of service to the city.
It's an expensive and embarrassing episode for the commission majority. Legg is right to try to make sure others don't follow suit with rushed decisions intended to avoid public scrutiny.