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Saturday, Aug 30, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

Independence needed by inspectors in Tallahassee

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Independence was a core principle for the Founding Fathers, as we know from all of the Fourth of July celebrations this week. It's in that spirit of independence that I come this morning to praise your state legislators.

On Tuesday, HB 1385 became the law of our state. Basically, it protects the independence of Florida's inspectors general as they monitor state agencies for waste and corruption. The job is not without hazards. It was not uncommon for inspectors to face retaliation for issuing unflattering reports about the people they are required to investigate. Now they have some protection.

“This is something liberals and conservatives can agree on,” said state Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City.

That's a pretty radical statement, since liberals and conservatives everywhere are predisposed to eye anyone who thinks differently with profound suspicion. Raulerson's point is well taken, though. The bill passed 114-0 in the House and 37-1 in the state Senate. In case you're curious, state Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat from Duval County, was the lone “nay” vote.

“This bill is about transparency,” Raulerson said. “If inspectors have more independence, you and I get better reports. It's a matter of making sure state government is functioning properly. These guys have to have independence.”

That hasn't always been the case.

As former state legislator Paula Dockery noted in a recent column in the Tribune, there are several documented cases of inspectors being harassed or even losing their jobs because they were making life uncomfortable for the politically powerful.

That's kind of the point of having inspectors, though.

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The Florida Inspector General Act of 1994 put a watchdog over every state agency. According to its website, inspectors have the duty to “promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in state government and detect, deter, and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.”

It's hard to expose waste and abuse if the person committing that fraud, waste or abuse can get you fired.

“IGs should never be put in that position,” Raulerson said. “What we tried to do is create a scenario where the agency and inspector generals have a peer-to-peer relationship instead of a boss-to-subordinate situation. This will start a process that hopefully results in a change of thinking.

“Inspectors aren't on a witch hunt with these agencies. They're just doing their jobs.”

There have to be safeguards on both sides.

An inspector with a grudge can cause unfair havoc for an agency, just as an agency head with the strange idea that what he does is none of the public's business can get ruffled when an outsider asks uncomfortable questions.

Well, guess what?

The relationship between inspectors and inspectees is supposed to remain at arm's length. They aren't supposed to be friends or enemies. It has to be strictly business. They all work for the taxpayers.

This is the real world, though, and those ideals can get blurred by political ambition. This bill is a needed attempt to remind everyone the way things are supposed to work.

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