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A Times Editorial

Labor talks undermine faith in commission

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District commissioners could have saved taxpayers money if they had:

Trusted their administrative staff to negotiate a contract with the firefighters union, as they had done for years.

Made the decision in public.

Instead, the commissioners met behind closed doors to hire an outside labor lawyer, whom they later let go (at yet another closed session), but not before he and his staff did $2,254 of legal work the commission now is not even sure it authorized.

What is more, there may be no way to determine what the fire commission did, or did not, instruct the lawyer to do because they apparently kept no records of the executive session in which they discussed labor strategy.

This is yet another in a series of financial missteps and lapses in judgment that bring into question the fire commission's ability to be responsible stewards of the trust voters have placed in them.

Florida's Sunshine Law allows public agencies to meet in closed, executive sessions to discuss certain matters, including labor negotiations, so the fact that the commissioners took advantage of that exemption to develop strategy is not extraordinary. However, making a decision in private to spend tax money by hiring or firing a contractor abuses the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

The fire commission had to transfer $1,700 from its contingency fund to make up the difference for what it had budgeted for the attorney's services. It is at least the second time this year the commission had to dip into that account. In March, fire commissioners had to ask the County Commission's permission to borrow $50,000 from the contingency fund to pay for a truck it had bought to fight brush fires. The fire commission had counted on using impact fees collected by the county to make that purchase. It later learned that was not a permissible use, creating a budget blunder that resulted in Chief Mike Morgan being reprimanded.

The recent questionable expenditure of $2,254 may not seem like a large sum, especially considering that the fire commissioners were prepared initially to spend up to $35,000 on the outside labor advice. But when added to the $4,800 spent in February to provide select commissioners with fancy radios that only fire chiefs really need, the costs snowball.

More important, the financial gaffes lend credibility to growing public opinion that the fire commission has outlived its usefulness and has become an entity more occupied with politics and personalities than with the day-to-day emergency services its team of professional rescuers consistently provide. It also indicates that the County Commission may be on the right track by appointing a committee to look at the possible long-range benefits of uniting the county's ambulance and fire services.

But for now, the fire commission would better serve its approximately 70,000 constituents by being more mindful of its emerging reputation for extravagance and bad judgment.

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