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Government business must stay in Sunshine

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By The Staff

A grand jury report on the hiring of Marion County Administrator Lee Niblock by Marion County commissioners makes it clear our elected officials and county staff should conduct business of the county in an open forum.

The eight-page report, released by the grand jury, indicates they were unable to find any actual communication between commissioners about hiring Niblock to the county’s top job. No charges of criminal conduct are coming. What the grand jury found, though, was the intent of the Sunshine Law had been ignored.

Florida’s Sunshine Law requires the business of running a local city, county or state government is done in the “open” or in the “sunshine.” Posting notices of public meetings and putting out agendas clearly listing the items up for discussion keeps the public informed on projects and proposals coming before commissioners.

From time to time, something unexpected occurs and the need for “walk-on” items may occur. Walk-ons should be the exception to the rule.

Therefore, it is a surprise when a new county administer is hired at a meeting on “road assessments” just two days after the resignation of former County Administrator Pat Howard. At that Feb. 25 meeting, Commissioner Mike Amsden suggested the county hire Niblock as the interim county administrator and start a search for the right candidate, but a 4-1 vote prevailed and Niblock was hired for the job.

The quick way Niblock was hired for the job raised some eyebrows among the public. Those concerns did not go unnoticed and State Attorney Brad King’s office opened an investigation in April to see if the officials had violated Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

The findings of the grand jury were first released to those named in the report. Those named had 15 days to challenge the report before it was released to the public. The report was not challenged.

Niblock is well-qualified for the job. Realistically, the search for the right county administrator may have circled back to Niblock.

After Niblock was hired in 2002, the grand jury’s report said he eventually started meeting individually with commissioners. He also started communicating with commissioners via his personal e-mail.

Yes, the county has its own e-mail system. It’s a system that retains copies of all e-mails received and sent to allow for inspection of public records, as required through Florida’s informational laws, sent through e-mails. It is in the best interest of the public when only the county’s e-mail system is used in any communications of county businesses.

The grand jury’s report recommends:

Niblock to resign and become the interim administrator and apply for the position after soliciting other candidates. Asking for his resignation, instead of suggesting he was fired saves the taxpayers six months of severance pay based on $165,000 per year salary.

If he doesn’t resign, don’t renew his contract after his initial three years. At that point complete a full and open hiring process.

In the future, use a full and open hiring process for the positions of county attorney and county administrator. Such hirings should not fall under a category of walk-on.

The Board of County Commissioners should create rules and procedures prohibiting the use of private e-mails for county business.

These suggestions should come as no surprise to any of the commissioners or Niblock. Florida’s Sunshine Laws aren’t new. They’ve been around since the ‘80s and for good reason.

Doing business in the “open” is in the best interest of Florida’s citizens, and Marion County is no exception.