Last week, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan sent his budget appeal to the Florida Cabinet. The Escambia Board of County Commissioners has scheduled a shade meeting to discuss the appeal for this morning at 9 a.m. Shade meetings allow the board to discuss legal issue in closed session.
On Saturday afternoon, Sheriff Morgan sent Commission Chairman Doug Underhill the following letter objecting to the shade meeting:
Dear Chairman Underhill,
Sheriff Morgan has approved the communication below. Due to the press of time, the Sheriff has directed me to send an advance copy to you by email. Hard copy will follow on Monday:
ESCAMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
October 21, 2017
Honorable Doug Underhill
Escambia County Board of County Commissioners
Dear Chairman Underhill,
I understand that the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners plans to meet on Monday, October 23, 2017, to debate the EBOCC reply to my appeal of the FY 17/18 cuts to my budget. I have also learned that EBOCC plans on closing the meeting to the public. I recommend that this meeting be open to the public.
Florida has a long-standing policy mandating that meetings to discuss public business be conducted in the open. The law governing such meetings (Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes) allows for closed Board meetings in only very limited circumstances — when there is pending “litigation” and when the subject matter of the meeting is confined to settlement negotiations or strategy sessions related to litigation expenditures.
My understanding is that the subject matter of Monday’s planned meeting is the drafting of the reply to my budget petition. I am not aware of any settlement negotiations underway. We broached the subject of negotiating this matter with the County Administrator, and we were told that EBOCC wants the appeal process to go forward. In fashioning the EBOCC reply to my appeal, the EBOCC must justify why, as a matter of policy, it increased its own budget but cut my certified request for a budget increase.
EBOCC prides itself on its conservatism, publicly claiming that it opposes tax increases. EBOCC has, however, raised fees and MSBUs to fund their own programs. But conservatism is not just about taxing. It is also about giving priority to core government functions when spending taxpayer money. In Escambia County, this means funding public safety, and therefore the Sheriff’s Office, before spending on lower priority, non-essential government functions. Ever since I have been Sheriff, the EBOCC approach has been to fund its own wants and “needs” first, and ECSO last.
The debate about replying to my appeal is not limited to “litigation” or “settlement” strategies. In question are the very type of public policy issues that by law must be addressed and debated in public, in the light of day. I was given very short shrift in this year’s budget debate. I find it unconscionable, and perhaps a violation of the Florida’s Sunshine Laws and policy, to close this meeting from public scrutiny when the subject of the debate is the EBOCC reply to my appeal.
We have attempted to get straight answers about the budget from EBOCC and its staff. We have records requests that have yet to be answered, and have not been given straightforward answers to our questions. When we asked the County Administrator for clarification of budget issues, we were told that the County would not “do the math” for the Sheriff. This does not give me confidence that the County is being forthcoming about the Escambia County Budget. Closing this meeting will further advance the notion that there is something about the EBOCC budget that EBOCC does not want the public to know.
I call upon EBOCC to squarely and frankly discuss these issues in the light of day in public. You may want to consider additional legal guidance before closing the meeting. If you do hold the closed meeting as planned, in my opinion it is not in the best interests of our constituents, nor will it foster our working relationship as we strive to achieve a budget resolution.