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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Dade City needs workshop on trust

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What a slender majority of Dade City commissioners did last week was not about officially embarrassing a longtime employee who’s occasionally ruffled the regal ermine of Madame Mayor Camille Hernandez (although it certainly was that, as well).

No, what they did back on Oct. 21 was something altogether sinister, treacherous, diabolical, meretricious and foul. The matter at hand, while significant, is irrelevant. Only the venue (a workshop) and the majority’s action (it rammed through a lawmaking vote) matter.

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The subtleties at work here may be lost on Dade Citians occupied with more immediate concerns, but what happened that night must not be dismissed. History pivots on subtleties, as students of Shakespeare and Richard III well recall, and if the city’s voters fail to check the majority’s brazen recklessness, we may look back on Oct. 21 as Dade City’s lost-horseshoe moment.

Typically, boards convene workshops to gather and evaluate information and, on occasion, achieve consensus about what to do when — but only when — they meet in regular session. Additionally, while workshops usually are open, rarely is time set aside for public comment, and nothing in this year’s revisions to Florida’s Sunshine statutes commands otherwise.

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Ostensibly at hand last week was whether the time was ripe for dividing the role of the city’s clerk and chief financial officer into two distinct jobs, authority granted commissioners by revisions to the city charter adopted in 2007. Going in, longtime commissioner and former mayor Scott Black had said, “When it came (in budget talks) earlier in the year, I said I didn’t see need for change, but convince me.”

The workshop was scheduled at an Oct. 8 board meeting that stank of impatience, ambush and payback. Although the notion had been simmering on a back burner at least since summertime’s employee evaluations, it didn’t become an agenda item until Commissioner Jim Shive, a former city employee establishing his bona fides as Hernandez’s lackey, moved to bisect the jobs during commissioners’ comments at the end of the meeting. Commissioner Eunice Penix, noting the direction of a vindictive wind and fanning up some toxicity of her own, seconded, and the majority was ready to plow ahead with a vote until Black — exposing the obvious — shamed them into scheduling the Oct. 21 workshop.

There, Black thought, details would emerge outlining the division of labor, new staffing requirements, costs and where the money would come from, and what other ramifications could be anticipated. Blessed informed consensus would coalesce and they’d be ready to decide, for the record, at their regular meeting the next day.

But when commissioners settled in, Hernandez regally made her intent clear: It wasn’t whether the division was going to occur, it was simply when — almost as though the mayor and her minions already had resolved things in a place beyond the reach of Florida’s Sunshine. Says Shive, “I thought it was time. I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong.”

Give her honor this: Hernandez had that afternoon cleared the vote with City Attorney Karla Owen, so unless we hear otherwise — perhaps someone with standing will file an ethics complaint — we will presume what the majority did was legal. But that still doesn’t make it right.

Filling a couple of rows toward the back of the boardroom, Class’ supporters squirmed in stunned silence while Shive and Hernandez flung terms straight out of Management 101 — the move would “empower” employees, “streamline” processes, even “open lines of communication” — and Penix spouted poisonous hearsay, including that “someone” told her the FBI ought to be called in to inspect the city’s financial records.

Then, with the majority’s hair evidently aflame, they sprinted to the relief of their legal, nefarious vote, never having heard a peep from their constituents, who might have had plenty to say for the record if commissioners had merely waited until their regularly scheduled meeting.

Shive, whose shrug could be detected over the telephone, said they were deciding only about the internal operations of City Hall. Only? The salary and benefits boost for the new clerk — presumably Joanna Akers, the current deputy — amounts to a reallocation of more than $4,000 in tight taxpayer funding, something surely worthy of public comment.

OK, splitting the job may, indeed, be the right course for Dade City. But taking the vote at a workshop cloaks it in subterfuge, Congress’ fevered Christmas Eve 2009 vote on the Affordable Care Act in miniature, and giving fresh evidence to what we wrote Sunday: Between elections, officials don’t really give a Fig Newton for public opinion. It’s repetitive, tedious, poorly sourced and likely only to cause a ruckus.

Even so, you don’t ever expect them to rub our noses in their contempt. Consider this a heads up, then. The majority’s behind-your-back, precedent-shattering vote said this one thing above all others: As currently composed, Dade City’s commission cannot be trusted.

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