Federal judge to Hillsborough County: Want to change your ways so this doesn't happen again?
Okay, that would have been my headline.
What U.S. District Court Judge Richard Lazzara actually said in a strongly worded order in the sexual discrimination case against County Commissioner Kevin White was more judicious than that.
But here's what I heard, translated from his sharp-edged legalese to my you-and-me plainspeak:
Hey, Hillsborough officials: While you're busy fretting over who does and doesn't have to pay up in this case (and by the way, that would be the county as well as the commissioner himself), you might also think about this:
The county's loosey-goosey procedures, in particular one that lets commissioners hire and fire their aides without any real oversight, helped land this case in court in the first place. I can't do anything about that. But you can.
Given the six-figure fallout from the jury's finding against White, accused of repeatedly hitting on his young aide before he fired her, the commission is still figuring out what to do next.
Or what to pay. Or what not to pay. It's on the agenda again today.
Commissioner Rose Ferlita has suggested they settle the bill instead of spending more taxpayer money, then go after White legally. As for the defendant, White has declined to tell fellow commissioners (not to mention citizens) if he plans to pay a dime.
While commissioners are squirming at the thought of financial responsibility for this scandal, the fact is the county also was named in the lawsuit and is jointly liable. One juror said money damages were meant to send the county a message.
(A side note here, apropos of absolutely nothing in this case, just a local notable moment that shows how small a town Tampa really is: Judge Lazzara and Commissioner Ferlita once were engaged in college to be married.)
But back to the serious subject at hand. In his order last week, the judge pointed to the county's "never-ending quest to avoid liability" as well as how White could fire Alyssa Ogden with "a complete and total absence of any meaningful review of his decision."
The judge noted employees like Ogden serve at the pleasure of the official who hires them, leaving them unprotected from being fired "on the unfettered whim and caprice of that official."
Sure, it's important commissioners and other elected officials choose the right-hand men and women who will work closely with them and the public.
But zero oversight?
Consider Ogden, who was 22 and hired over more qualified hopefuls because White decided to "go with his gut." (Ahem.) When she filed a complaint after being fired, an attorney for the county opined that, in her case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had no say.
Red flags, anyone?
Judge Lazzara was careful to note it's not his job to fix the "glaring gap." That's the commission's job. But when a federal judge brings something to your attention, you listen. At least, you should.
Imagine years from now, another attorney for another fired employee holding up Judge Lazzara's order, a warning not heeded and taxpayers on the hook yet again.
Now that would be, in plain speak, a federal offense.