Almost two years ago, the Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment, sued the Hernando County Commission because CAUSE members were denied access to the Development Review Committee as it negotiated with Wal-Mart to build a supercenter on U.S. 19 near the intersection of Spring Hill Drive.
County government maintained that opening the meetings to public view would be disruptive and interfere with the planning process, much of which centered on lighting, landscaping, parking, frontage roads and setbacks. All those were issues that CAUSE members hoped to analyze and offer comment on because they believed construction of the supersized Wal-Mart threatened nearby conservation land and protected critters living there.
The county could have opened the meetings and stipulated that no public comment would be allowed. Instead, development officials closed the door and assumed a stubborn stance, dismissing CAUSE's threats to file a lawsuit.
The activist group made good on its threat and won a judgment in circuit court in November 2002. The commission remained unconvinced and instructed its lawyers to appeal the decision. In January, the District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court's ruling and ordered the county to pay CAUSE's legal expenses.
Now the time has come to put a price on a slammed door.
At today's meeting in Brooksville, the commission is expected to authorize a check for $25,000 to reimburse the group's attorney, Ralf Brookes. And, even though it may not sound like it, that's a bargain. The attorney originally submitted a bill for more than $67,000.
Still, $25,000 is a high price to pay for a disagreement that probably could have been nipped in the bud if the county had been more flexible - and had a little more respect for the intent of Florida's Sunshine Law.
A fond remembrance
When I came to Hernando County in 1990, the first elected official I met was Henry Ledbetter. As I later learned was his hallmark, he welcomed me warmly in the unassuming manner one would expect from a Southern gentleman. After we chatted for a while in his office on the fourth floor of the county government complex in Brooksville, I already knew that when the time came to disagree, we would not be disagreeable.
When news came last week that Ledbetter had passed away at the age of 69, I was saddened not only that the county had lost a man who had given much of his life to public service, but also by the passing of a political style that grows rarer by the day.
Ledbetter served on the County Commission from 1982-1990. Before that, he held top administrative positions in county government. It was a decade of phenomenal growth, and he was a subtle, yet guiding, influence during that time. In 1990, just before he narrowly lost his re-election bid, the Times wrote:
"Henry Ledbetter is due a certain amount of thanks for restoring dignity and decorum to the position of commission chairman... " The recommendation to readers cited his "calm, thoughtful approach to county problems" and that he was "quiet, soft-spoken and rarely at the forefront of solving a dilemma." But, the editorial went on to say, "Ledbetter listens carefully, then interjects a cogent opinion that leads the commission toward a rational conclusion."
Ledbetter will be missed by the family and friends who loved him. But he will not be forgotten by anyone who appreciated his genteel manner and sincere willingness to help others.
Ledbetter may have never known how many people admired him. Too many barely knew him but may be better off today because of his dedicated work on the commission and in the community.
I did not always agree with Ledbetter, but I never doubted that he was doing his best, with honesty and sincerity. May we all be fortunate enough to earn similar praise.