Don’t be a “Fraidy Cat.”
That’s what current and former lawmakers advise in response to the recent timidity of Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Rob Williamson about supporting resolutions that oppose bills backed by influential Tallahassee legislators.
Williamson expressed concerns twice last week about two requests for board resolutions—written statements in disagreement with proposed new state laws that will be voted on during the 2017 Florida Legislative session, which started this week.
One call for action came from Pete Gandy, a retired Air Force colonel who is Santa Rosa’s military affairs consultant. He asked the board’s support for his resolution opposing a pending bill that would effectively eliminate Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, and its Florida Defense Alliance affiliate.
Gandy asserted that the alliance has helped obtain millions of dollars in grants to purchase buffer land around Whiting Field, which backers of that strategy say will boost the base’s image with the Pentagon in case of future federal budget cutbacks that could lead to the closing of some installations.
But Williamson balked at Gandy’s request.
“I would just caution my fellow board members. This would be a target on our backs to be sure,” Williamson said. He noted that the bill is backed by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land ‘O Lakes.
“We need to be careful in how proactively we are out in front of this issue and going up against Speaker Corcoran…” Williamson said.
District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole said there’s legitimate concern that future Santa Rosa requests for certain funding or other support in Tallahassee might suffer if leading lawmakers see the county’s resolutions as attacks on their legislative agendas. “We might never hear about it,” said Cole, “but something we send up there might just go in the trash can.”
Stand your ground
Corcoran’s veteran legislative assistant, Fred Piccolo, said there’s no need to fear retribution from his boss. In response to questions from the Navarre Press, Piccolo said: “Without equivocation–no. The Speaker believes in principled debate and doesn’t believe in authoritarian-like measures for those he disagrees with.”
Referring specifically to the bill that would impair Enterprise Florida and its military affairs arm, Piccolo said Corcoran “passionately defends his principles while maintaining civility and respect for opponents, even with they don’t return that civility and respect.”
Although Santa Rosa commissioners passed Gandy’s opposing resolution by a vote of 5-0, they recommended funneling it through the county’s Tallahassee lobbying firm, Johnson and Blanton.
But sending opposition messages through a hired go-between doesn’t help with Corcoran, said Piccolo: “He does take notice because he also believes that local governments shouldn’t pay contract lobbyists to advocate when elected officials should be advocates in Tallahassee for their constituents.”
Former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz agreed: “I know Richard Corcoran well, and I believe he takes criticisms well. He doesn’t take things personally as long as things are on an issue level. As long as it’s about policy, there is no retribution.”
Further, lobbyists aren’t effective substitutes for interpreting stands taken by local officials, Gaetz asserted. “A county commissioner is probably going to be taken more seriously than a lobbyist.”
Newly elected Florida Rep. Jayer Williamson of Milton, a former Santa Rosa commissioner, said, “I can only speak personally. But I will seek input, and I need it to be unfiltered.”
Still, Jayer Williamson said he recommends that local officials make individual contact with him before enacting a public resolution.
“I would love for us all to work together. I don’t think it does any good to call legislators out to the media before talking with them one on one.”
He added, “I want to hear directly from the commissioners” before they formally consider a matter as a board. “But if they decide they want a resolution, then they should do it.”
Sen. Doug Broxson, a veteran Northwest Florida legislator, said, “I have an excellent relationship with all the Santa Rosa County Commissioners. If they have an issue they should just pick up the phone and let me know.” But if local officials feel strongly about passing a resolution–perhaps to raise public awareness–Broxson said, “They should do it.”
Broxson said he has never heard of state lawmakers retaliating against local governments for expressing their opinions.
Commissioner Rob Williamson also persuaded his board to delay another resolution last week that would oppose a Florida Senate bill to prohibit suspension of a person’s driver’s license if they fail to pay traffic fines.
“If this bill passes, attorneys will tell their clients they don’t have to pay and there are no ramifications for not paying,” said Santa Rosa County Court Clerk Don Spencer, who suggested the resolution opposing the bill.
But Rob Williamson again discouraged speaking out. “A resolution that would go forward in opposition to this bill would definitely have ramifications for Santa Rosa County,” he told board colleagues last Thursday.
Williamson noted that the bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has clout: “Four of the most influential senators in the Florida Senate are in support of this bill.”
At Williamson’s recommendation, the commissioners decided to withhold a decision on the resolution until later in March when they have had more time to study the bill.
To be sure, by that time the bill may have picked up virtually unstoppable momentum in Tallahassee, Spencer pointed out.
What’s more, said Gaetz, legislators are besieged with competing opinions, which means that waiting means moving back in line to have your point of view considered. He said, “There aren’t enough file cabinets in Tallahassee to keep track of all the input that legislators get.”
Meanwhile, Gaetz added, local officials musn’t underestimate their influence in Tallahassee, or their obligation to assert it: “For years I was elected by the very same people that elect county commissions and city councils.”
As seen in the March 2 issue of Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year.