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Schenck's Internet proposal deserves a second chance

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

Rob Schenck saw it as a no-brainer.

He wanted to put his and the other four county commissioners' voting records on the county's official Internet Web site. His intent was to make the board more accountable and accessible. The added bonus was that doing so would fulfill a promise he made to voters as he campaigned for office last year.

But, as things tend to do in Hernando County government, the idea got stopped before it got started. In fact, this particular effort became so convoluted that Schenck sort of threw up his hands in frustration after his enhanced Web site suggestion was shot down in a 3-2 vote at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who did a passel of independent research on how other counties report such information, and Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse, raised concerns about how to make sure the voting information was accurate. They were very concerned about Schenck's proposal that commissioners be allowed to post explanations of their votes. Commissioner Mary Aiken, deemed Schenck's idea redundant from the get-go and, as is the case so often, just seemed annoyed by the duration of the discussion.

It's too bad Schenck's idea got bogged down in details before it ever really got off the ground. "I just meant for it to be a template for discussion," he said Friday. "I never imagined it would snowball into this."

Robinson and Whitehouse's objections notwithstanding, Schenck's proposal has the potential to provide information sooner and in an easier-to-read format than the existing system, which relies on the full minutes of the board's meeting. The lag time between when a vote is taken and when it is available for viewing on the Web site is now about a month, and that's because of the volume of information that must be included.

Commissioners should not get hung up debating the legalities and merits of writing comments to accompany their votes. How they voted, not why, is what really matters. Too often politicians just skew their comments to rationalize a vote they fear may come back to haunt them. Besides, people who are truly curious about how the commissioners justified their conclusions can either watch them on television or access the meeting minutes later.

Of course, Schenck could start his own Web site and put whatever information he wanted on it, but he said Friday that, in deference to his reluctant colleagues, he probably won't do that. "I don't want to push something on them that they are uncomfortable with," Schenck said, sounding resigned to defeat.

He shouldn't give up too easily. His idea may be getting a second wind.

Robinson said Friday she plans to revisit the issue. She said she's working with Clerk of the Courts Karen Nicolai, who is the statutory custodian of the commission's records, about developing a system that would link the voting record chart directly to the official minutes. The primary question is how much it might cost to develop the software and how much time it would take employees to keep everything up to date. Whitehouse also appears open to any set-up that would be dependable and accurate.

Those commissioners' turnarounds could be an attempt to defuse criticism that they were trying to distance themselves from their voting records, and some more cynical suggestions that the Democrats were playing petty politics with Schenck, the lone Republican on the five-member board. (Democrat Diane Rowden fully supported Schenck's initial proposal, by the way, which blows a hole in that partisan conspiracy theory.)

If Robinson brings up the issue at Tuesday's commission meeting, it will be in the hope of finding a compromise. Ironically, she'll need Schenck, who was on the losing end of this debate last week, to do that. Although she may borrow his idea and modify it, she can't steal it, which leaves the nascent rookie in the driver's seat.

Schenck should safeguard the simplicity of his original proposal. It's a good idea and not at all as complicated as some have portrayed it. It should be easier this time around for the full commission to see the intrinsic benefits of providing residents information accurately, promptly and conveniently.

Who knows? Maybe he can even persuade his colleagues to include a method for residents to rate commissioners' job performances, which also was part of his campaign promise from last fall.

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