BROOKSVILLE - A divided county commission on Tuesday voted to deny a request from its legal office to pay Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut's legal fees in his slander suit.
As a representative of county government, it makes sense for several reasons to "defend and indemnify" Schraut, said Jon Jouben, senior deputy county attorney.
He said one reason is that members of volunteer boards who represent Hernando County, such as the aviation board or the planning and zoning board, could be handcuffed if faced with legal action in their line of work.
Schraut was sued by one of the airport tenants, Michael Honeycutt, with Worldwide Aircraft Services Inc., operators of an air ambulance service.
In the lawsuit, Honeycutt alleges that Schraut made comments to the media that his company was "troublemakers, were liars, were bomb throwers and were like terrorists."
The comments were made "to bring shame, disgrace, embarrassment (and) indignity" on the company and "negatively affect the credibility" of Worldwide, according to the suit.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden made a motion to deny the paying of legal fees associated with the case. Commissioner Wayne Dukes seconded the motion, and the vote was 3-2. Commissioner Dave Russell and Jim Adkins voted against.
Dukes said it is incumbent on those in authority not to make offensive statements to the media or in public.
"If you choose words that are inflammatory, aggressive or leaving yourself up for libel, that's a mistake, and I'm not too sure at this point that the taxpayer should be responsible for those actions," he said.
The legal office worked with the county's risk management coordinator to find an outside attorney that charged $150 an hour, $135 per hour for any associates and $75 per hour for any paralegal help.
The airport would have paid the bills, and none of the money would have come from the county's general fund.
Adkins said providing counsel was proper.
"If you are a member of any board in Hernando County, I think the county should protect that individual," Adkins said.
Resident Shirley Miketinac said providing legal defense for officials who don't rein in their comments sets a dangerous precedent, especially if the county decides to "continue to bail out people for their rash statements."
Resident Chuck Gordon said Schraut should watch his words.
"I do not believe we should cover his costs for his carelessness," Gordon said.
County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said there has been a presumption of guilt when the aviation chairman has denied the accusations.
"It's not up to the commission to try the case," he said.
Russell said he doesn't believe the Schraut lawsuit will go anywhere and the commission's decision will harm people on boards who may think the county won't defend them from lawsuits.
Planning and zoning board members "from time to time have to do and say things about people who are petitioning the county, and they may not like their decisions and may turn around and sue them," Russell said. "That's not a good thing."
v vAlso Tuesday:
Hernando County Tax Collector Sally Daniel notified commissioners her office is returning $2.1 million in fees to the taxing authorities and $1.5 million to the general fund.
"We have a great staff," Daniel said. "Without them, this wouldn't happen."
As the county's banking depository for taxing authorities, the tax collector's office collects and administers property taxes. It gets money from sources including the selling of hunting and fishing licenses and the issuance of driver's license permits.
By law, Daniel has to return the surplus money her department nets from fees and taxes.