Friday, June 19, 2009

Cameron shies away from public accountability

No comment. I just wanted to save this for posterity:o) But, I sure hope the citizens of Charlotte County wake up and demand better.



Cameron shies away from public accountability

OUR POSITION: We're dismayed that the Charlotte County sheriff managed to side-step a public budget review session.

Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron found a convenient way last week to avoid potentially awkward public scrutiny of his $60 million budget: He pulled the plug.

Instead of meeting with all county commissioners in front of the public access TV cameras, Cameron opted to sit down with each board member, one-on-one, behind closed doors. No sunshine. No wide-ranging group discussion.

He even said he hadn't realized there had been a scheduled public budget session in the first place.

"Unbeknownst to me, I had already set up meetings with them. I didn't know they were doing that," the sheriff told Sun staffer Neil Hughes after the public meeting was canceled.

"It's much easier for me to talk with all five of them individually."

Of course it is.

As a constitutional officer, Cameron isn't necessarily required to go through his budget with the commission. He submits it; they either accept it as presented or not. If they reject it, he can appeal to the state, and Cameron has said he would do that if it were necessary. He shouldn't, but that's another issue.

In Sarasota, Sheriff Tom Knight gave an extensive, public budget rundown to commissioners Wednesday. He even posted his 27-page presentation on his Web site ( No issue there. It was just the right thing to do.

One major point of the exercise is to let the tax-paying public in on the process. It is an opportunity for the sheriff to explain and to justify his department's spending at a time when all government is under extreme stress. The dismal climate has meant greater fiscal scrutiny for all departments, from libraries to planning services, kids' recreation to senior services.

It may even be a quarrelsome process, but it's always a healthy one. The public gets to find out what it's paying for. The sheriff gets to explain his approach to public safety, a core function of local government.

The big problem is that the sheriff's budget accounts for an enormous chunk of overall county spending. And as everyone knows, Charlotte County is looking at dramatic cuts this year, maybe as much as $50 million. More cuts in the Sheriff's Office could mean far fewer smaller cuts elsewhere. That's another reason to come clean in public, so citizens can weigh the various interests.

As it is, Cameron already has cut back 2 percent this year. That's nothing to be sneezed at, but it's far from the 15 percent in concessions sought by Commissioner Bob Starr. Starr has attacked most other parts of the county budget with a Bowie knife, so it's no surprise he expects a little more from the police. He's been tough with everyone else, so we all know he'll be tough with the sheriff.

But other commissioners have agreed that law enforcement shouldn't be subject to drastic cuts. They're willing to cut him some slack. Now, as Commissioner Adam Cummings said, the exercise has been short-circuited.

"It was always about getting the sheriff in front of us to make some more concessions, and he didn't play that game," Cummings said.

By avoiding a public hearing, Cameron has skipped out on an opportunity to explain and justify why his department needs this level of funding at this tough time. It's called accountability.

The sheriff took the easy way out, and the tax-paying public loses. Maybe it's time to man up.