A Hernando Commission majority has a stern warning for the chairman for one of its most prominent advisory boards: Behave professionally when you're representing county government.
The unexpected, but welcome message came Tuesday when three commissioners declined to hire an attorney to defend Aviation Authority chairman Gary Schraut from a defamation lawsuit brought by a tenant at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. Worldwide Aircraft Services and company principal Michael Honeycutt sued Schraut in August, contending Schraut's comments to Tampa Bay Times columnist Dan DeWitt were defamatory. The column did not name Honeycutt specifically, but Schraut talked of people at the airport whom he dubbed the "Fab Five'' short for the "fabricating five'' who were akin to "bomb throwers'' and "like terrorists.''
Last week, the county's legal staff recommended retaining attorney Joe Flood at a reduced rate of $150 per hour, saying the county had a legal obligation to indemnify Schraut because his statements came in his role as chairman of the Aviation Authority, a volunteer advisory body to the commission.
Commissioners Wayne Duke, Diane Rowden, and Nick Nicholson disagreed. Dukes, a retired federal employee, offered the proper perspective, saying people representing government must choose their words wisely in their public statements and should avoid what he called inflammatory and aggressive language.
The vote, however, doesn't necessarily relieve the public of a financial obligation because the county's insurance coverage excludes defamation claims. Schraut can hire his own attorney and then seek reimbursement from airport accounts, a payment that will still need commission approval.
Commissioner James Adkins said the vote sent the wrong signal to its volunteer boards and that the county could have trouble recruiting members in the future.
Actually, it sent a much-needed message: The lack of professionalism surrounding the county-owned airport must be a thing of the past.