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A Times Editorial

Water negotiations no place for secrets

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

The Florida Governmental Utilities Authority's strategy for recruiting Hernando County to participate in its quest to buy Florida Water Services was born in secrecy. It worked, inasmuch as the county administrator and commissioners helped keep the plan hush-hush for several months, right up until the Times got wind of it in October.

But since then, the proposed megadeal has been written about extensively and, as more and more details about the negotiations emerge, so do questions about its suitability. Consequently, commissioners' skepticism is growing, which is but one kink in the FGUA's armor.

Given that an informed public has not advanced its cause, it is no surprise then that the FGUA is reverting to its pattern of secrecy. Earlier this week, its representatives asked to meet privately with each commissioner, allegedly to discuss the status of the negotiations.

The FGUA may be free to pursue its agenda behind closed doors, but the commissioners have no obligation to be a part of it. Moreover, the commission should insist that the FGUA relay all its information at a public meeting, or in writing to the chairman and county administrator.

The FGUA's acquisition of Florida Water is a huge proposition, and the public's stake in the deal cannot be overstated. If the FGUA purchases the utility (estimated cost $602.5-million), and Hernando County agrees to be a partner in the transaction, it could cost taxpayers more than $47.9-million to buy Florida Water's assets here.

The FGUA and County Administrator Paul McIntosh maintain that some elements of the negotiations with Florida Water are better handled in private because publicizing their strategies would tip their hand to Florida Water. They should give Florida Water more credit. This is a half-billion-dollar-plus deal; it's naive to suggest that Florida Water isn't already doing all it needs to keep up with the FGUA's maneuvers.

But more to the point, FGUA representatives should not be allowed to circumvent public disclosure by talking to commissioners individually, and then using that knowledge to act collectively on the board's behalf. If allowed to meet one on one with each commissioner, the FGUA effectively is polling the board for majority consensus and using that information to proceed accordingly.

Residents have a right to judge their elected officials on how they interpret and apply the information they receive. That simply cannot be accomplished behind closed doors and with no record of what is said.

No commissioner should consider shutting the public out of this very important process. Each should flatly refuse to meet with the FGUA privately, and request to be briefed all at once -- in public -- or via memorandum.

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