Bill to give gov the ability to fire local officials faces uphill battle

Feb 1, 2012

Florida lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at local governments that have been declared to be in a state of financial emergency. The bill would let the governor boot local government leaders who fail to fix the situation. The measure passed the Senate, but Regan McCarthy reports its moving difficulty through the House.

Representative Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, says House Bill 7031, is aimed at keeping local governments and other entities like school districts solvent. Hukill says there are certain “indicators” that a local government is in “financial distress.” When those show up local governments have to let the governor know and school districts have to notify the Commissioner of Education.

“At that point current law says state of financial emergency is declared and then certain kinds of help become available to that entity like money, and certain types of procedural help.”

Hukill says her measure focuses on what would happen after a state of emergency is declared. Her proposal would implement two recommendations made by the state’s auditor general in 2011. First, Hukill says her bill would put a time frame in place for how quickly an entity that’s been declared to be in a state of “financial emergency” must give financial information to the state government so it can help.

“If the entity reports to the governor that they’ve met one of these statutory indicators the  governor’s office will ask for certain information, but there’s nothing in current law that would provide when that has to be provided.”

Representative Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican, says she knows from serving as chairman of the joint legislative audit committee that a rule like this sorely needed. She says when the government is trying to take a look at how tax payer dollars are being spent there should be some sense of urgency that would result in a timely response.

“Couple of months ago, what we ended up having to do, because we did have problems with that was send letters to the delegation chair members to let them know that we needed their help in getting financial statements in.”

The second part of the bill is more controversial. Hukill says the measure would give the governor the power to remove an official who fails to fix the financial problem. She says the constitution already gives the governor the authority to do that in several situations.

“And basically what the constitution says is malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent in ability to perform duties, commission of a felony, etc. Statute authority reference in statute  1-12.51 Also includes, believe it or not, and this is a very old statute, also includes habitual drunkenness.”

Hukill says her proposal would clarify that failing to fix a financial state of emergency would count as a reason for the governor to be allowed to remove someone from his or her position. But Representative Dwayne Taylor, a Daytona Beach Democrat says he doesn’t like the idea of giving the governor that power.

“There are other mechanisms and other ways that you can get this information without allowing the governor to remove commissioners for things that are really subjective. If you look at the items that are outlined the inability to perform is basically a subjective. That’s based on somebody’s interpretation.”

Taylor says other reasons the governor would have for removing an elected are based on fact.

“When a commissioner is arrested, there’s no doubt that that commissioner was arrested. So, you can pretty much remove them.”

Representative Jeff Clemons, a Democrat from Lake Worth, has similar concerns.

“We can already remove council members for malfeasance. If there’s something obvious that they’ve done, we can remove them, but I think this opens it up to being able to remove members for political  reasons because of the generality of the definition of the inability to cure whatever financial ills the city has.”

Others worry that the proposal could unfairly punish officials who have inherited the situation. Hukill says a law that has allowed the governor to remove officials has existed since the 1960s. She says the measure targets those who refuse to take the steps needed to resolve a financial emergency—which she points out is not designation given lightly. The measure passed through the House State Affairs Committee in a close 9-6 vote. It now moves to the House floor.