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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: San Antonio must avoid Dade City’s bad example

Things rarely move rapidly, unexpectedly or with a sense of intrigue in San Antonio, which is among the little town’s estimable, enduring charms.

You want pedal-to-the-metal plot twists and cold-blooded back-stabbings, you need to head over to Dade City where, with the exception of two new faces and an annual personnel budget heavier by $36,000, the metropolitan Machiavellian dispatching of a well-liked city hall fixture has been swallowed up as though by quicksand, leaving no trace.

An election has come and gone without a single change. The mayor who orchestrated it and the former mayor who fought it carry on as before, and the legislation that would have prevented the same sort of thing happening ever again in Florida — that is, taking policy-making votes on non-agenda items at workshops — succumbed last month to lobbyists’ anguished howls in the state Capitol.

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I note all that to say this: Here’s hoping, as they, too, prepare to resolve a delicate staffing matter, San Antonio’s four commissioners aren’t guided by Dade City’s stuff-the-public example. Yes, the perps got away with it. But that’s the wrong lesson, entirely.

Not for the first time in recent memory, there’s an unanticipated vacancy on the San Antonio board, this one created by political novice Anne Kibbe, the commissioner-elect who abruptly resigned Wednesday, the day she was to have taken the oath of office.

It was, all-in-all, a banner week for Kibbe, heretofore better known for her vivid landscape and still-life paintings. Now she’s locally famous for blasting Saint Leo University officials’ plan for expanding along the school’s new western frontier at the same time she was the university’s director of professional development, as well as an incoming commissioner who would have to help decide whether the town should fight.

Now? Let’s just say Kibbe is no longer job-locked. And we wish her well.

What we wish for the remaining commissioners, now that they have begun the process of seeking candidates and electing a replacement is, simply, this: Sunshine.

The rare but not unfamiliar task ahead of the San Antonio board — say hello to Tim Newlon, Mark Anderson, Elayne Bassinger and Dennis Berberich — is, fundamentally, a political one. Essentially, what’s about to unfold over the next few weeks is a special election for precisely four voters: a quartet representing the interests of roughly 1,200 residents. Accordingly, it should be conducted, as much as possible, in public.

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This, alas, seems not to be the course commissioners intend to take.

At their meeting Wednesday night, the membership quickly hammered out a course of action: Publicize the vacancy and accept applications through June 4. So far, so good. It’s the next part of the plan that sounds creepy. Somehow it was decided commissioners would meet individually and privately with each of the candidates.

Seriously? Stipulated: Such an arrangement falls within the letter of Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws. But it hardly seems to fit the spirit. Assuming the return of longtime (and momentarily retired) commissioner Roy Pierce doesn’t drive all the other candidates to the exits, commissioners should interview the prospects at a well-advertised workshop at least a couple of days before they vote on a replacement.

This is not to suggest the incumbents might pose, in private, questions that are somehow inappropriate or compromising, or might be tempted, secure behind closed doors, to swap support in exchange for a promise to vote one way or the other on issues certain to come before the board. It’s simply that their constituents won’t know what they asked, or how the candidates responded, or — worst of all — whether deals were brokered. Replacing Anne Kibbe, who sounds like she’d have been a memorable public servant, should be above board and above suspicion.

The only way that happens is if it’s done completely in the sunshine.

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