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A Times Editorial

It's time for board to show it knows right from wrong

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

Some advice for the three Hernando County commissioners who recently voted to retain County Administrator Paul McIntosh:

Forget the poorly written, laissez-faire policy that governs county employees accepting gifts.

Leave the legal staff out of it. Their opinions on this subject lack credibility and definition.

Quit making excuses and giving one manipulative person the benefit of a doubt, while overlooking the growing and legitimate doubts of your constituents.

Recognize McIntosh for what he is: A person who has shamelessly -- and too frequently -- accepted favors and gifts from people who would have no cause to offer them were it not for his position as an influential public servant.

Finally, stop pretending that you don't know the difference between right and wrong, and carry out the overarching duty of your office: Protect the integrity of government.

In McIntosh's case, the only viable option is for the commission to sever its ties with the self-aggrandizing administrator before he molests the public's trust again.

McIntosh survived an attempt by Commissioners Nancy Robinson and Diane Rowden to oust him on March 5, mainly because of confusion created by the Human Resources and Legal departments regarding the propriety of county employees accepting gifts. The commissioners who defended McIntosh's acceptance of a free round of golf from an Orlando firm to whom he later steered county business, managed to find gray in an issue that was black and white to most reasonable people.

Those commissioners, Mary Aiken, Chris Kingsley and Betty Whitehouse, were even more charitable when McIntosh refused to answer the simple question of whether he took gifts from other sources, saying cryptically that he couldn't answer until he talked to his attorney.

Now, thanks to a Times report published Friday, commissioners have at least a partial answer to that question.

McIntosh admitted to staff writer Jennifer Farrell that he has been the recipient of tickets to football and baseball games, and a golf outing at an exclusive private club. Some of the people who treated him to those favors had direct dealings with the commission. Remarkably, McIntosh maintains that doing so did not cross any ethical line, violate any county policies, or influence his decisions.

McIntosh's ethical compass must point him in a different direction than most, because no sensible individual could interpret his behavior as anything but unscrupulous.

While such perks are the norm in most corners of the private sector, they are rightfully taboo for government employees, who must be held to a higher standard because taxpayers depend on them to use their power impartially. When public servants accept gifts -- or worse, solicit gifts, as McIntosh reportedly did for four Tampa Bay Devil Rays tickets -- they betray their position of responsibility. By raising even the possibility that they are privy to perks not offered freely to others who do not share their authority, they invite resentment and suspicion.

McIntosh and his supporters have tried to portray the scandalous predicament in which he finds himself as some sort of orchestrated witch hunt by his detractors and the media. That's preposterous. The commissioners who have had the good sense to recognize McIntosh's faults did not create them. McIntosh took the freebies, not them. And to blame the press for doing its job of asking questions in the spirit of public disclosure is a threadbare attempt to divert attention from the real issue: the county administrator's misconduct.

Given what they now know about McIntosh's tendencies toward self-endowment, any commissioners who remain unconvinced or unwilling to send McIntosh packing are doing a disservice to their constituents and do not deserve the honor their office affords them.

The commission meets Tuesday. That's as good a day as any for the commissioners to end this destructive mismatch.

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