Every so often, Citrus County commissioners need to have The Talk.
I don’t know whether commissioners are at that point but indications suggest we’re getting there.
You see, while commissioners are elected individually and serve together on a board that meets twice a month, there is much taking place beyond those few hours.
Oh heck. Now I’m beating around the bush.
The Talk is about commissioner roles, duties and obligations. What they can and shouldn't do. Board protocol.
It usually comes around when commissioners start believing they as individuals have a say among the staff beyond what the board decides.
Here’s what I mean: On his/her own, a commissioner has zero authority over anyone. Staffers naturally jump when a commissioner wants something, but that’s due to being polite, smart and efficient more than anything else.
But a single commissioner, for example, shouldn’t be taking staffers to out-of-town meetings or events unless it’s been supported by board majority and OK’d by the administrator.
There should be a well defined chain of command, even for commissioners. The only people employed by the county commission are the administrator and attorney. Everyone else works for one of those two. All board direction should flow through the administrator or attorney.
It’s common for commissioners in a new board makeup to find themselves wandering off on pet projects with staffers in tow. In the commissioner’s mind, this is all county business so what’s the problem?
A few things.
First off, it’s illegal by county ordinance for a commissioner to interfere with the staff without board direction. The idea is to prevent commissioners from sidestepping the administrator or attorney — or fellow commissioners — and start issuing orders to the people who work for the administrator or attorney.
We’ve seen head-strong commissioners over the years get impatient with the lack of focus from colleagues, and just start diving into a project without any board direction. That’s fine if they’re only out researching, but it’s not fine when they’re using county staffers — who have real jobs — to work on an initiative that does not have board backing.
There are exceptions. If Commissioner Diana Finegan, for example, is speaking to the Homosassa River Alliance, she may bring some staffers along to help with the details. Absolutely normal, common.
Same with commissioners who meet with citizens. No one would expect a commissioner to show up on someone's flooded street and not bring with him/her a county flooding expert. When commissioners and staff combine to assist citizens, good things usually happen.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to commissioners who regularly interact with staff on pet projects that haven’t been vetted publicly.
And, by the way, sidestepping the board but getting the administrator's permission doesn’t count. A commissioner says to the administrator, "I need Director Ben to come with me when I meet with the Save Holder Society.” What’s he going to say? “Uh, gee, better get permission from the full board first.”
There’s a reason for that rule.
The administrator knows which staffer is best suited to assist commissioners. It’s not the commissioner’s job to grab his/her favorite division director for official business.
I wasn’t sure this board would need The Talk until the last meeting when Commissioner Jeff Kinnard forced a $2 million Baker Act vote on an agenda item that wasn’t scheduled for a vote.
Switching the agenda at the last minute? I've seen this ploy before.
Just my guess, but Kinnard may believe there’s too much chatter between individual commissioners and top staffers. If he had only a Baker Act discussion without a vote, the whole thing could take on a new flavor before the board meets again.
Kinnard didn’t want to take the risk of losing a Baker Act campus. He got the two other votes he needed. The two no voters, Commissioner Rebecca Bays and Chairman Ruthie Davis Schlabach, weren’t happy with Kinnard’s approach.
Before this very significant Baker Act issue returns on March 14, it would seem obvious commissioners should have The Talk. Get it out there, clear the air, that sort of thing.
Usually it’s the chairman who brings it up. Make sure everyone’s on the same protocol page.
And, wouldn’t you know it, commissioners meet today. No time like the present.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.