COUNTY COMMISSION DEBATES ETHICS GIFT RULES-Andrew Stelzer

01/06/05

This morning, the Hillsborough county commission discussed the issue of whether commissioners should be able to accept gifts worth more than 100 dollars. WMNFs Andrew Stelzer was there and filed this report.

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Commissioner Kathy Castor tried to bring up the issue last month, following a series of newspaper articles in the St Pete times which detailed how Jim Norman as a member of the Tampa Sports Authority, sat in a box at Tampa bay bucs games, and got free food and alcohol, which added up to hundreds of dollars per game. Norman was also allowed to bring guests, and give away the tickets to people if he himself couldn’t attend the game. But Castor did not mention the bucs games, she instead said it was a matter of making the public confident that the commission members aren’t influenced in their decisions.

ACT-castor “In my 2 years here I have not witnessed any problems..but this is a large government, many businesses that do work with us. This policy would establish a very bright line rule that we aren’t going to accept any money from them…this is broader than state statute its very narrow, but I think its appropriate to set the bar higher..�

Castors proposal never received a second, as several other commissioners objected to the limit. Commissioner Ken Hagan said he researched other counties throughout the state, and none of the dozen or so he researched had limits on gifts other than those imposed by state law.

ACT--Hagan ‘Even the city of tamps policy doesn’t do it, state reps and senators aren’t prevented form accepting gifts. I also researched other stadiums, Tropicana st Pete has a suite, they do not offer free drink…the one that really stuck me was Alltel, 2 boxes, catering is pad for by the mayors office. So the bottom line is that Hillsborough’s are no different, and apparently the sports authorities..even the author of the motion hasn’t witnessed widespread..��

Commissioner Brian Blair said that Commission members should be held to standards of honesty not be a new restriction, but by their personal ethics.

ACT-Blair “When we first run we follow a code of ethics—NO CONTRIBUTION—its still a gift. My point is that from the time of our candidacy….we abide by state law. If anybodies unethical..and I think everybody here is ethical and has proven to be ethical….and id like to thank you for tickets to the outback bowl�

Commissioner Rhonda Storms said that she thinks extra tickets to football games should be given to charity, instead of to other county commissioners as has been done, and added that the voters are what hold politicians accountable.

ACT-storms “There were two politicians who were held accountable, because the electorate said you are too tight with the Glazers, and they paid everything. Their boss said you are too tight. You will lose your job and that the purpose of the public record….if e are talking about campaign contributions, I am for that.�

And commissioner Mark Sharpe said he thinks participating in banquets and other events is an important part of a commissioner job.

ACT-Sharpe “There are gifts that are totally inappropriate, others are appropriate. We get invited even as a candidate to everything, and those by the broad definition are considered gifts. Sometimes I get invited to 10 or 15 in a day…my concern is that we in an effort don’t try in one instance..if we begin to set guidelines that we establish we cant do our job effectively, and they take us to a function, its comped, an I supposed to call my wife, do I have to call the county attorney and ask, and I prefer the rules that we have, report and then I’m held accountable..�

Castor began backing off her resolution, but said she will continue to work towards tighter ethics standards.

ACT-castor “Well I respect my colleagues comments but I disagree, there’s been no time when I couldn’t participate in an event. We are not entitled just because we are elected, the taxpayers do not expect us to have admittance fees and golf games…contributions are different. But I can see it didn’t get a second its not headed anywhere..�

The commission members then became defensive, wanting not to be seen as if they were dodging an ethical issue. Commissioner Sharpe.

ACT-Sharpe ‘I don’t want anyone to think because we aren’t seconding this, we aren’t supporting ethics. I think this position by you misses that mark.�

Commissioner Storms

ACT-storms ‘Im chafing at the implication that somehow if I don’t support this position I am not supporting high ethical standards..�‘if you say its immoral once you are elected….ill accept that as an amendment to the motion..�

The resolution passed without a second, and Storms suggestion to tie the 100 limit to campaign donations also was never followed up on. Afterwards, Commissioner Blair defended the practice of receiving gifts.

ACT-Blair “If we get a perk here or there, I think they understand. Were paid a lot less than most of the department heads.

The commission also received an audit of the HARTLINE transportation agency, which detailed the fact that millions of dollars have been unaccounted for. Several years ago, Jon Dausman had filed for whistle blower status after reveling to HARTLINE, who he worked for at the time, that the construction costs of the streetcar were being hidden and were unaccounted for.

ACT-Dausman “Commissioner Scott asked for the city, the city said its ok, but of course as we all know, 3 and a half million was still owed to the city, then they found another 650,000 dollars. The final amounts have been increased in a year.�

Commissioner Storms took the opportunity to Criticize the Streetcar.

ACT “A month ago we were told right before December it would cost 3 million dollars, well we didn’t do it, then they said ok we can do it for 2 million. Based on this audit, what’s the real truth? I want to encourage us this proves otherwise, and that is appalling…and I want to say personally to you thanks you in the face of great public pressure, of arrogant continued funding of the street car…�

Earlier this week, The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously to postpone deciding how to allocate $3 million dollars and await a recommendation from its staff

For WMNF news, I’m Andrew Stelzer

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