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Hillsborough commissioners aim to improve public records process, ethics training

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In the wake of a heavier than usual number of public information record requests in the past several months, the Board of Hillsborough County Commissioners on Wednesday unanimously voted to strengthen their procedures in processing such requests.

“We need to do a better job of documenting, tracking and responding to requests,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan (photo at left). He said it’s important to provide more timely requests.

Both Hagan and Commissioner Sandy Murman were accused last week of failing to respond to a request for all emails between themselves and private consultant Beth Leytham. Since September Leytham has been the center of a storm over the contract negotiations that saw transportation engineer Parsons Brinckerhoff lead the Go Hillsborough transportation project, a project on which Leytham has been a subcontractor.

Both officials blamed a breakdown in communications with their staff in a report produced by WTSP-Channel 10 last week.

Hagan also said he wanted the county’s legal department to review the best methods to retain text and e-mail messages that are not transitory to create a BOCC records response checklist. The checklist would include the date the request was made, the date it was retrieved, and the date the county attorney responded to the constituent.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham added an amendment to Hagan’s proposal that would have County Attorney Mary Helen Farris research and provide a syllabus for in-house ethics lectures in a public setting. Board members are mandated to take a four-hour online course on ethics training, training that Higgenbotham derided as a “joke.”

Originally, Higginbotham wanted to extend the four hours of online ethics training to eight, with the additional four hours administered by someone in the county attorney’s office. But Commissioners Stacy White and Victor Crist essentially declined.

“We can be too quick to just pile on this type of thing in an effort to say that we’re doing more to show the public that our ethics are in line,” White said.

“The bottom line here is, I’m starting to feel like I’m being penalized for someone else’s lack of knowledge of what the ethics laws are,” Crist complained.

Commissioner Les Miller said it’s time for the board to suck it up.

“You gotta realize, we’re under a microscope, and our lives are different than everyone else’s lives out there,” he said.

County Attorney Chip Fletcher said that with four public information requests coming in per day, he hasn’t had the fully trained staff able to provide in-depth support to administrative officials to access such public records.

Crist confessed that commissioners are under the honor system to an extent. “We get to determine by looking at these messages what falls under the requirements of the Sunshine Laws and what doesn’t.”

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, one noted Hagan critic, East Hillsborough County activist George Niemann, expressed concern about Hagan’s renewed interest in the subject.

“I get nervous when the very commissioner who is under tremendous scrutiny over his failure to provide accurate and complete public records, suddenly wants to discuss the public records process,” Niemann said. “I hope the desire to discuss this matter isn’t self-serving in any way, but we shall see.”

The discussion came a day before the board convenes with the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace to meet as the Policy Leadership Group. That’s the local government body charged with deciding whether or not a sales tax referendum will go before county voters in 2016. At Thursday’s meeting, they’ll be presented with the recently Go Hillsborough published report that provides the details on three different proposals on transportation, two of them that would require a sales tax to be accomplished.

Members of the public, led by the emergence of the Koch Brothers-led Americans for Prosperity Florida to join with local Tea Party groups, came out to denounce the tax.

Transit critic Sharon Calvert called for the board once again, to shut down the Policy Leadership Group, saying it has been compromised. “Taxpayers must know where every dime went for Go Hillsborough,” she declared. “It has a cloud over it.”

“A sales tax hike referendum is dead,” she said. “Stop wasting more time and resources pursuing it.”

Kimberly Leach from Riverview said she agreed with Americans for Prosperity that a sales tax increase in Hillsborough County is not the answer: “Where does it end? At what point do you realize that you’re affecting the lives of real people, real families, real business in our community.”

She and others also resented the idea that only Tea Party members oppose the tax increase.

The Hillsborough PLG meets at 1:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss the new Go Hillsborough proposal.

 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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