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    A Times Editorial

    Botto case deserves comment

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002

    If this were a normal year, not the prelude to an election, the candidates for mayor and City Council in Tampa might have enough courage to censure the fire chief for abusing vacation time and misusing city equipment. But Chief Pete Botto is popular with the rank and file, and no one running is troubled enough to risk alienating the firefighters union. Its support, after all, can make or break a political campaign. The episode is another example of the poor state of professionalism and leadership in Tampa city government.

    The silence would be understandable if Botto were the type of department head idealized by the people running for office, or if his ethical lapse was a one-time mistake that didn't otherwise reflect on his management ability.

    But Botto, who will retire next year after Tampa elects a new mayor, exudes the good-old-boy culture the candidates promise to do away with. He is more than an embarrassment; taking a city van on a family vacation, failing to account for paid leave and making repeated jai alai junkets to Orlando during work hours are abuses that warrant attention by the state attorney. Yet no one running for office has shown the backbone to say so.

    The candidates have played it both ways -- relishing good press by advocating a new spirit of openness and accountability after two terms of Mayor Dick Greco, then refusing to prove themselves when the political risks are too great to take. What does this say to the Fire Department, to other city employees, to citizens who pay the bills? That Botto did nothing wrong, that he sets the right example, that the city's elected leadership will tolerate misconduct from people at the top?

    For every Botto supporter who thinks the chief's a hoot, there's a city employee and a Tampa resident waiting for the next crop of elected leaders to raise the ethical standards of the city administration. Many good candidates are running for mayor and council next year, but their timidity on the Botto matter denies them standing on an issue that should be a central campaign theme.

    An important public office is mired in a culture that confuses loyalty with professionalism. It is a problem, and the candidates need to talk about it.

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