Book excerpt: Speaking of Florida: My Time Remembered by Terrell Sessums

Tampa lawyer Terrell Sessums, a graduate of the University of Florida and a U.S. Air Force veteran, served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 1963 to 1974. During the 1972-74 session, he served as Speaker of the House. 

Sessums introduced a bill into the Florida Legislature that created the Tampa Sports Authority and led to the building of the original Tampa Stadium. He also introduced legislation to create the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.

Later, he chaired the Florida Board of Regents and served on the Board of Governors for Florida Southern College in Lakeland. He also served as president of the board of trustees at the University of Tampa.

Among his many honors were two Lifetime Achievement Awards from the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County and the Tampa Tiger Bay Club. 

He spent the last years of his life writing his memoir, a rich history of Florida during his lifetime (1930-2020), and died on June 6, 2020. Below is an excerpt from “Speaking of Florida: My Time Remembered,’’ which is available for purchase on Amazon.

                          ———

After the Senate failed to act, a member of the press called and told me that Sen. Barron had made some derogatory remarks about the House meddling where it had no business. I was irritated, took the bait, and made a hasty response intimating that Sen. Barron and his law firm were tools of special interests, road builders, and developers that he and his law firm represented.

Unfortunately, my hasty response received more publicity than Sen. Barron’s provocative comments. I felt compelled to promptly write a public letter of apology to Sen. Barron who, despite his firm’s clients, I considered to be one of the most independent members of the Legislature. I provided copies to the other members of the Legislature and the Capitol press corps and believe that we avoided any hard feelings. To his credit, Sen. Barron was most helpful on a number of other important legislative issues sent from the House to the Senate.

As the reader should note, the House had three times as many elected representatives as the Senate had elected senators, i.e., 120-40. I often compared the Legislature to a football team with the House being the offense and the Senate being the defense.

With three times as many members, the House generally produced about three times as much legislation, and the House members, with shorter, two-year terms, frequently felt compelled to sponsor legislation without as much consideration as some of it should have received. Also, many of the bills considered and enacted into law could be characterized as housekeeping matters to correct prior legislative oversights or mistakes and to consider a number of relatively non-controversial matters requested by local governments, state agencies, and significant citizen groups. Many of these bills were introduced “by request” and created little or no controversy. Except for our failure to pass a joint House/Senate resolution for a Florida growth policy, a number of significant results were achieved.

On the subject of ethics in government, laws were enacted to establish standards of conduct for public officials, to require financial disclosure by public officers and candidates, and to establish an Ethics Commission. Rep. Paul Danahy, my colleague from Tampa, led this effort. Paul’s bill to establish an Ethics Commission had failed to get much support at earlier sessions, but with growing support from the governor, the press, and members of the Legislature it was finally enacted into law.

The Ethics Commission was to be comprised of members appointed by the governor, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House. Gov. Askew subsequently appointed former Gov. LeRoy Collins, retired Florida Supreme Court Justice E. Harris Drew, and George Allen, the University of Florida College of Law’s first African-American graduate. I appointed Rep. Sandy D’Alemberte, who became the Commission’s first chairman. Appointments were made on a bipartisan basis to include Democrats and Republicans. One of my appointments was a young Republican from Hillsborough County, John Grant, who had served on Sen. Louis de la Parte’s staff and who had been active in the leadership of his religious denomination. John later served in both the Florida House and Senate.

Most of the controversy had to do with financial disclosure. I strongly believed that public officials should make financial disclosure. The final result fell somewhat short of Gov. Askew’s and my expectations. It required that officials make disclosure of major sources of income on forms to be provided by the newly created Ethics Commission.

I personally felt that disclosure by part-time public officials, who generally must depend upon private business and employment for their primary income and who frequently receive little or no public pay, should be required to make exactly the same disclosure as full-time public officials, along with a copy of their federal income tax returns, but on a confidential basis to a strong and independent Ethics Commission that could make their disclosures public if it found a reason to do so.

Few people wish to make their financial affairs public information, and this is no less true for part-time public officials than for private citizens. However, the ultimate decision was to make public disclosure on required forms that at least revealed the tips of the icebergs.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the leadership provided by the House committee chairs and the members of their committees.

Here is a link to purchase a copy of Speaking of Florida: My Time Remembered.
 
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