Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a motion on Wednesday directing their attorney to research and provide draft language on a proposal that would ban them from receiving text messages from a lobbyist during a board meeting.
However, the proposal’s ultimate passage is unclear, based on comments from some members.
“In the event that we did receive a text message during a commission meeting from a lobbyist related to official public business, we would have to disclose that communication by filing it with our … lobbyists registration within 48 hours of receipt,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman in announcing her plan.
But Murman’s proposal doesn’t include any penalties for a commissioner who would violate the ban, something that bothered Commissioner Les Miller. “I see where you’re trying to go with this,” he told Murman, saying that it echoed the recent lobbying rules that were approved last month by the Florida House of Representatives.
Under the new lobbying rules promulgated by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, lobbyists who violate the ban would lose their privileges to lobby the rest of the session. Miller then speculated that there “might be some punishment of making them, taking them off a chairman of a committee or moving their office space or parking space.” He then asked Murman what penalty would a commissioner face for violating the ban?
“There’s not going to be any reprimand, or fine,” replied Murman. “This is going to be a matter of disclosure.”
“If there’s not going to be any enforcement, what’s the need for?” asked Miller.
“Well, the need for it is transparency,” Murman responded.
Actually, the new rules passed in the Florida House don’t address any sanctions for lawmakers if they receive texts from lobbyists.
Commissioner Ken Hagan dismissed the idea outright, calling it “symbolism over substance.” Hagan added that the proposal attempts to solve a problem that just doesn’t exist in the county. And noting that he received only one email on the subject, Hagan deduced that the public doesn’t really care about it.
Newly-elected Commissioner Pat Kemp expressed concerns about any banning of texts from members of the public, “especially from community advocates sometimes that I have communications with.”
County Commissioners earlier this year passed an ordinance requiring all lobbyists to register by name, who they met with, what they talked about and who they represented when meeting with board members. They were prompted in large part by the controversy around how transportation engineer Parsons Brinckerhoff became contractor for the Go Hillsborough effort — and subsequently hired Beth Leytham as a subcontractor. Leytham never registered as a lobbyist when she communicated with commissioners via text message and email during that process.
Commission Chair Stacy White said he understood the concerns expressed by Hagan and Miller, but said he wanted to see the draft language that Fletcher employs when he brings the proposal back to the board, and said he supported it. He also emphasized that he didn’t want to give up the option of looking at his smartphone during a board meeting, even if did take away his attention from the proceedings at hand. “What I don’t want is for people to think that if a commissioner up here at this dais grabs a cellphone that there’s somehow corruption or somehow something underhanded going on.”
The measure passed 5-1, with Hagan dissenting.
Attorney Chip Fletcher and his staff draft a proposal and present it to the commission at a future meeting.