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Hernando commission to debate ordinance requiring lobbyists to register

 
Hernando County Commissioner John Allocco says the time has come for Hernando to enact a lobbying ordinance similar to ones in other growing communities around Florida.
Hernando County Commissioner John Allocco says the time has come for Hernando to enact a lobbying ordinance similar to ones in other growing communities around Florida.
Published Sept. 6, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — A method to publicly identify those who lobby the county's top decision makers, including the County Commission and other leaders, could soon be in place.

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, the commission will consider an ordinance that would require those who would gain directly or indirectly from county decisions to register and for logs to be kept of their communications with county officials.

In addition, lobbyists would not be able to make their pitches through private text messages, on private cellphones or via private emails, which cannot be easily viewed under public records laws.

The issue was raised by county Commissioner John Allocco last month, and the idea prompted a spirited discussion among commissioners, who on numerous issues in recent meetings have been divided.

Allocco said that with Hernando County growing and businesses hoping to expand in the area, he thought the time had come for Hernando to enact a lobbying ordinance similar to ones in other growing communities around Florida. Hernando, he said, "lacks transparency when it comes to lobbying interests.''

Residents, he said, have "a right to know'' when someone with something to gain is working to influence those who make decisions.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes noted that the last time he heard the discussion, it was led by state. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who also is Hernando County's Republican committeeman and head of the state Republican Party.

"Did (Ingoglia) tell you to say that?'' Dukes asked Allocco, who succeeded Ingoglia as chairman of the county's Republican Executive Committee.

"No, he didn't,'' Allocco said.

Commissioner Steve Champion asked which counties have lobbying ordinances. "Blue counties? Really blue counties?''

"I guess you guys aren't capable of thinking on your own, so you assume everybody else doesn't,'' Allocco shot back.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he wanted to take the issue a step further and create an ordinance that would prevent people who were trying to sell the county on something from talking to commissioners at all. He said he often tells people who email him that they need to talk to the county administrator or a county department head.

"I don't want to listen to them,'' Nicholson said.

Allocco said he just wanted records to be kept so that the community knows who is lobbying county officials.

Champion noted that the definition of a lobbyist could be fairly broad.

"Who is a lobbyist? There's a lot of good-old-boy club members who like to talk to everybody,'' he said. "I would consider them lobbyists when they own banks or real estate firms.''

In recent years, the public and commissioners who are not involved in private conversations with politically influential business leaders — including SunTrust Bank executive Jim Kimbrough and Realtor Gary Schraut — have been critical of the influence those people exert when meeting one on one with commissioners.

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Other questions were raised when business leaders, including officials at Cemex, lobbied commissioners several years ago over expanded mining west of Brooksville.

County Attorney Garth Coller said the definition of a lobbyist generally covers anyone with a financial interest who talks to board members.

''I'd say it's a slippery slope,'' Champion said, "because what if a business wants to talk to every commissioner, is there a problem with that?''

"There's no problem with it,'' Allocco said. "It's just that everybody sitting here should be able to know if company XYZ has reached out.''

He noted that commissioners have had meetings with various companies at the government center. Champion said one recent example of a business talking to all commissioners was when the contract for Republic Services was proposed for expansion.

But Champion said there is another way to track influence.

"We can look at campaign contributions and tell exactly who's lobbying who,'' he said. "I was doing that on my campaign, and there was a whole lot of lobbying going on — on the other side'' against his candidacy.

"This isn't anti-lobbying,'' Allocco said. "It's transparency. We're all about transparency on this board.''

Champion said he wasn't sure he even knew any lobbyists and questioned how he would know he had talked to one. Allocco said it would be up to the lobbyists to tell county officials they were lobbying.

Dukes said the idea of lobbying has an even broader meaning.

"We had about 100 lobbyists here today telling us to fix the river,'' Dukes said, referring to Weeki Wachee residents in the audience who were pushing the commission to better police the Weeki Wachee River.

Champion wanted to know if there was some specific incident that sparked the interest in an ordinance.

"Where's the problem?'' he asked. "Where's the breakdown? Is somebody being influenced by lobbyists somewhere?''

Said Allocco: ''Taxpayers just deserve to know.''

The ordinance commissioners will consider puts the investigation of potential violations in the hands of the county's code enforcement officers. A first violation would come with a warning; a second within 12 months would bring a fine of $250. A third infraction within 12 months would bring a prohibition from lobbying for six months, and a fourth would mean a year without lobbying privileges.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.