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Plan to hold private meetings was an insult to the taxpayers

Kudos to Hernando County commissioners who figured out the public's business should be discussed in front of the public, not in private, closed-door meetings. We just hope Circuit Court Clerk Karen Nicolai will figure out a similar, sensible way of governing.

Nicolai, whose job also makes her the county government's chief financial officer, helped arrange for Hernando's five commissioners to have a sit-down —one at a time, supposedly — with Nicolai and other constitutional officers which would include Sheriff Al Nienhuis, Elections Supervisor Annie Williams, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazurek and Tax Collector Juanita Sikes. The stated purpose of said meetings was the county budget and Nicolai's continued contention that commissioners have failed to devise long-term spending reductions.

Too bad, however, that Nicolai and her co-conspirators picked the private law offices of the Hogan Law Firm in Brooksville for the planned confab to escape public scrutiny and to be out of the earshot of County Administrator David Hamilton, who didn't get an invitation.

It is an insult to taxpayers and nothing more than an attempt to govern outside the spirit of the Government in the Sunshine Law, which requires elected officials to conduct public business in properly noticed public meetings.

The tax collector's operations and a portion of Nicolai's court-related responsibilities are financed via fees. But the rest of Nicolai's duties and those of the sheriff, property appraiser and elections supervisor are funded by property taxes out of the county's general fund. Hamilton has asked the constitutional officers to cut their budgets by a combined $2.5 million - half of a projected $5 million shortfall in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. You don't have to retreat behind closed doors to figure out the purpose of these meetings. It's about turf protection and casting Hamilton as the bad guy.

Nicolai was foolish to schedule the sessions, particularly after playing host, again at the Hogan office, to similar meetings while Hamilton was on vacation in late February. Then, the other constitutional officers weren't invited and at least one commissioner, Jeff Stabins, said the intent of the meeting was to nudge the commission toward dismissing Hamilton.

In an interview afterward, Nicolai characterized herself as a nag and portrayed those previous sessions as her attempt to voice her concern about the county's long-range finances and the commission's unwillingness to devise cost-cutting measures. She admitted the meetings, and the resulting publicity about her seeking Hamilton's ouster, blew up in her face.

So did the second round.

The meetings were scrubbed after Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt reported on the plans and commissioners decided to take a pass. It was the correct decision.

Let Nicolai have her desired frank discussion in front of every Tom, Dick and David. The commission is scheduled to discuss the coming budget during a work session next week. Nicolai should be sure to attend. Nagging about public money is more effective if you nag in front of the public providing it.

Plan to hold private meetings was an insult to the taxpayers 04/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 4:58pm]
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