Hillsborough County commissioners will meet Wednesday to debate whether to appeal a federal jury finding that Commissioner Kevin White fired his former aide for refusing his sexual advances. There is immense public interest in this scandal, not only because taxpayers are on the hook for a half-million dollars in damages and fees, but because it opened a window into the sleazy dealings of a sitting commissioner.
His colleagues should not compound the public's loss of confidence by taking advantage of a state law that allows them to discuss the matter privately. Wednesday's meeting should be open.
Florida law allows government officials to meet behind closed doors to discuss strategy in an ongoing legal case. Used appropriately, it is a reasonable exemption to the state's open-government laws that can protect taxpayers' interests. Crafting a strategy in secret can keep opponents off guard and limit the public's liability. But the decision to go underground is a balancing act. That's why the law says officials "may" — not "shall" — meet in private. The merits rise and fall with each individual case.
The matter with White involves none of the valid reasons behind giving elected officials the privilege to meet privately. First, the jury has already found that White repeatedly harassed his then-22-year-old aide, Alyssa Ogden. The trial is over, the facts are known and the issue now is who pays what and whether to appeal. Second, the issue of an appeal is straightforward — do it or not. The county will no doubt declare its intentions even before filing any motions, and appeals are part of an open court record.
It also is bizarre to imagine that the public would be barred from this meeting while White — who has his own legal liability in this case — would have a seat at the table. Commissioners need to insist Wednesday that White, and not county taxpayers, pay for the damages and legal bills he caused. The public needs to hear that discussion. They need to see how forceful commissioners are in deploring White's misconduct and in pressing county attorneys to hold him accountable.
While the secrecy law provides that a transcript of the session be made public at a later date, that would be meaningless in this case, for the public could not influence the course that commissioners will take.
Wednesday's meeting is not about strategy. It is about how to contain the financial fallout that White's misconduct will have on taxpayers. That is a discussion commissioners need and have the power to have in the open.