Elected officials can presume it is not a good day when dozens of residents begin literally to bark like dogs at council members when the mayor tries to shut them down during a public meeting.
Memo to Groveland City Council members: Perhaps it was a mistake last April to have referred to members of the general public who happen to vocally disagree with you as "barking dogs." People can be so sensitive, can't they?
And that's not Groveland's biggest problem at the moment.
Consider that Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents have been snooping around City Hall and chatting with residents for the last few weeks after allegations that the some elected officials have regularly been violating the state's open-meetings laws.
The laws are pretty simple and have been around for decades. Basically, those elected to public office are prohibited from talking with other members of the same board about business that might come before that board for a vote.
The idea is to keep discussion of the public's business in the public, which is where it belongs. That way, everyone can openly and honestly evaluate whether tax money is being spent properly and decisions are being made without undue influence or to benefit a private party.
So far, FDLE hasn't officially opened a case. Agents are just trying to decide whether there's enough evidence to indicate that some on the council have been communicating with one another privately. A spokesman for the agency said agents may decide later this week whether to push ahead with an investigation.
Let's hope they do.
There is no massive smoking cannon outside City Hall with the name of a guilty official inscribed in blood. But there have been a number of incidents raising enough questions that a clearing of the air is called for.
State agents would never say this publicly, but the truth is that they despise these sorts of investigations because they are infused with small-town politics, which can be like a hall of mirrors. Their preference is to put a big smuggler behind bars, not to mess around charging small-town leaders with insignificant misdemeanors.
Still, Florida's Sunshine Laws are a key to democracy at its most basic level. Seeing that the public's business is conducted in public at the grassroots level is important in small towns like Groveland. No, it won't earn a medal for any agents. But a thorough examination will help get the town back on an even keel.
Here's one documented incident that has raised some eyebrows:
On June 20, Mayor James Gearhart and council member Tim Loucks met a police sergeant who was picking up dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. They began chatting in the parking lot, and Sgt. Scott Penvose — clearly uncomfortable with the conversation — wrote in a memo about it. He stated that the mayor began asking him questions about the city's police dispatching operation.
Gearhart and Loucks shouldn't be discussing city business, period. And this particular infraction was made even worse by the fact that the council was expected to vote on whether to contract with the Sheriff's Office to provide dispatch services rather than continuing to do it themselves.
When Penvose remarked that dispatch operations were above his pay grade, Gearhart said that he perhaps shouldn't talk more about the topic, according to Penvose's memo.
Actually, he shouldn't talk at all. To stand openly in a parking lot in the city discussing city business with a city employee shows a disregard for the law that deserves investigation. Gearhart's remarks showed plainly that he is aware of the rules.
Neither Gearhart nor Loucks responded to a request for an explanation. That's hardly a surprise. These gents seem to think that the rules don't apply to them.
Groveland has gotten off track in so many ways. Some housecleaning is in order.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.