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Decline to be lobbied

My guess is that county commissioners have already figured out that part of the reason opposition to the medical waste incinerator east of Macclenny grew legs so swiftly is be­­­cause of the perception that the wheeling and dealing had taken place out of the sunshine.

That’s not to diminish the environmental concerns held by opponents, but that perception of “good ole’ boy” deal making didn’t help matters for the proponents of the plan.

First some background.

Yes, officials of Integrated Waste Management Systems [IWMS], along with Darryl Register, director of the both Chamber of Commerce and Baker County Development Commission, lobbied individual commissioners before the plan surfaced two months ago.

Others, including yours truly, were aware the company was seeking support, both financially and otherwise, to locate the incinerator at Enterprise East. The plan had been floated the better part of one year.

Mr. Register, in fact, sought to delay the initial press coverage of the initiative for a brief period, citing fear of losing state funding for infrastructure. That was the week the legal notices for public hearings on the company’s development agreement were scheduled to publish. We declined the request and published the initial article that ignited a storm of protest.

Many yelled that there was a Sunshine Law violation lurking somewhere in that incinerator plan because it was obvious officials, both city and county, were aware of it.

No, one-on-one lobbying isn’t a violation of the Sunshine Law. But from here on out, governing boards would be wise to eschew the practice.

Such behind the scenes maneuvering may be beneficial if, for instance, several counties are vying for industrial prospects as was the case with the Walmart Distribution Center.

In that instance, officials signed pledges of confidentiality sealing their lips on the proposal while a lot of the groundwork was laid.

That’s problematic. No one wanted to be responsible  for blowing the lid off bringing hundreds of clean jobs at high wages to Baker County.

And, unlike the medical incinerator, there were plenty of communities that wanted Walmart DC as badly as we did.

In cases like that, perhaps it would be preferable if the county manager fronted for the commission and communicated individually with board members when necessary. That would be legal only if the manager was not seeking a consensus from the board out of public view — a clear violation of the Sunshine Law.

Members of all local boards should take the position that, while confidential matters like industrial prospects, or deals for utilities, are welcome, they will discuss them directly with favor seekers only in public forums.

An acquaintance remarked recently that were he on the county board, he would have been glad to talk to IWMS officials with the caveat that he’s not keeping anything secret. If he’s asked about it, he’ll freely admit what he knows. If he has questions, he’ll freely inquire in public forums. If entire boards adopted that stance, it would change the way the county is approached in cases like this.

Will we miss out on the “perfect” industry or business? Maybe, maybe not. If a prospect is viable and wants to come here, we can wheel and deal but the public’s going to know what we’re doing in its name. The best government is open government, despite the occasional roadblocks it creates.

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