The Pinellas County Commission discussed the budgets of 11 county departments in a televised work session last week, but when it came time to talk about the commission's own budget, the cameras went black. Anyone watching the meeting on television or their computer saw an on-screen message stating the commission was in recess. But that wasn't true. In fact, commissioners went down the hall to a conference room not equipped with cameras, where they spent an hour talking about how much to spend next year for their own travel, staff and salaries.
The meeting was legal. But it fuels distrust when the commission is clearly deciding to discuss some topics off screen, affording less access for constituents.
Last month, the commission also retreated to the conference room for an early discussion of its 2009-10 department budget instead of talking in the commission assembly room, which is expensively equipped for broadcasting meetings on cable television and the county's Web site at www.pinellascounty.org. And another conference-room session on the budget is tentatively scheduled for today, even though commissioners will be meeting in the assembly room on other matters through much of the afternoon and evening.
The law doesn't require meetings to be televised, just that they are publicized and open to the public — though there is limited seating in the commission's conference room.
Perhaps County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris, up for re-election next year, moved last Tuesday's meeting because he hoped to limit those who saw him oppose a 4 percent cut in commissioners' salaries at a time when the county is facing an $85 million budget shortfall. New Commissioners Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock also opposed the cut, but it was approved on a 4-3 vote.
Announcing to the viewing public that the commission was in recess when in fact it was meeting and voting in a back room was worse than a misstep by the County Commission; it was dishonest. In the future, all the commissioners' discussions about their budget should occur before the cameras, in full view of their bosses, the public.