|By David Damron, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 18, 2011--Some Orange County commissioners have agreed to keep secret the payout of a legal settlement with an online hotel booking company so they can approve the deal.
Others were unsure whether to sign the confidentiality agreement and may not decide until today's vote on whether to settle with Expedia over how much Internet-based businesses should pay in hotel taxes.
Regardless, it's not clear when -- or even if -- the public would ever find out what kind of deal their elected officials would strike.
"The public has a right to know," said Rae Capen, chairwoman of CountyWatch, adding, however that her group has not taken a formal stance on the issue. "I'm not very comfortable with this."
Two weeks ago, a majority of commissioners refused to sign off on the same settlement because they were kept in the dark about terms of the multimillion-dollar deal with Expedia and two other companies it runs. In recent days, however, the option of a confidentiality agreement emerged.
Comptroller Martha Haynie, who led the settlement talks, said in an email to the Orlando Sentinel on Monday that commissioners were being asked to sign a pact to keep them quiet on the details.
A memo from County Attorney Jeff Newton said the agreement was drafted by Expedia, and "if you are so inclined" to sign it, a member of Haynie's office would then share the settlement figure.
Commissioners Scott Boyd, Tiffany Moore Russell and Jennifer Thompson signed. Commissioner Fred Brummer said he will sign the confidentiality agreement in order to find out the terms of the deal.
County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and Commissioner Lui Damiani said they were leaning against signing the confidentiality agreement. But both said they still support the deal and had faith in how Haynie handled the settlement talks.
Commissioner Ted Edwards led opposition to the settlement vote two weeks ago but said then he could vote on it, even if he had to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to learn about the terms of the deal. Edwards could not be reached for further comment.
Officials with knowledge of the deal have told the Sentinel that the settlement is between $5 million and $10 million.
Haynie wrote a two-page memo to commissioners Friday to clear up what she said was "either some confusion" by commissioners "or disagreement with the idea of a settlement with Expedia."
Haynie wrote that she and county staff took part in mediation talks with Expedia on May 4, and she thought "staff was agreeable to a settlement if certain conditions were" met. Haynie reached a settlement in June based on the mediation talks, with a stipulation that commissioners agree to drop Expedia from the suit.
"Due in part to the confidentiality requirements of Florida law, county staff believed it was more appropriate for the county to not be a party to the settlement agreement," she wrote.
Haynie said mediation discussions and any "settlement agreement pertaining to tourist development tax" disputes are confidential.
Jacobs said Haynie was at the negotiation table and has a record of solid fiscal judgment. "I still have the confidence in her to make that call," Jacobs said.
As for what taxpayers should know, Jacobs said, "I think the public will likely have access to that information."
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