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State attorney should probe Morgan's claim

Spring Hill Fire Rescue District commissioners who have been critical of Chief Michael Morgan may have thought his departure would solve problems.

Instead, his forced retirement may have created new ones.

Morgan, who tried to barter his retirement secretly through electronic mail correspondence with Commissioner Jeff Hollander, said last week that at least two fire commissioners violated the state Government-in-

the-Sunshine Law. Morgan told a Times reporter that a commissioner told him he had consulted another commissioner, and that the two agreed to a retirement proposal Morgan had submitted.

"I received a call from a commissioner saying it had been accepted . . . as long as I kept my mouth shut. He indicated that he had talked to another commissioner," Morgan said, without naming the commissioners.

Each of the five commissioners denied the allegations, and cast Morgan as a bitter employee who is dining on sour grapes. However, Morgan's accusation is a very serious one, and it should not be casually dismissed.

That's why State Attorney Brad King should initiate an investigation to compel Morgan to identify the commissioners he believes violated the Sunshine Law. If Morgan has proof, the state attorney should demand he share it.

But the state attorney also should question each commissioner individually. It is likely they will deny it again, but doing so in response to an active investigation by a law enforcement agency will give credibility to the denial.

Morgan's allegation that fire commissioners sometimes communicate outside the view of the public wouldn't surprise anyone who has sat through their meetings, especially the ones during which scolding Morgan was on the agenda. To even an infrequent observer, the preachy speeches and on-cue responses seem scripted, if not rehearsed.

Perceptions that the public isn't privy to all it should be are reinforced by fire commissioners who routinely get together for breakfast or coffee. They may not be discussing fire district business, but it gives the reasonable appearance they might, and that possibility can be just as damaging as the reality.

But Morgan's allegation of a Sunshine Law violation is specific enough that it crosses the line from perception to suspicion. Based on that alone, it merits further investigation, and if found to be true, should be prosecuted.

If it turns out Morgan can't back up his allegation, then he's guilty of needlessly smearing the agency that has paid his salary for six years. That sort of reckless behavior will not go unnoticed by potential employers.

Either way, fire district taxpayers deserve full assurance that the trust they have placed in their public servants has not been abused or misused.

An investigation by the state attorney will be thorough and free of inherent conflicts that might hinder a probe by Sheriff's Office employees, who must work closely with the fire district's emergency service professionals. State Attorney King has been quick to pursue such allegations in the past, often personally overseeing the investigations. We urge him to take a close look at this one.