County seeks new ethics policy
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
"A public office is a public trust," read the handwritten words, which remained on the screen during the two-hour discussion with Hernando County officials about government ethics.
That message, from Florida's Constitution, infused Hubbard's presentation, which covered topics including gift taking, conflicts of interest, bribery and personal use of public property.
Hubbard, the city attorney for Dunedin and Tarpon Springs, provided insight into state statutes, stories of officials who ran afoul of the law and a basic rule of thumb to keep in mind.
"Don't get into a situation that tempts dishonor," warned Hubbard, who was speaking on behalf of the Florida Institute of Government. "Don't attempt to serve two masters, because you can't."
Commissioners liked what they heard and asked their lawyers to craft new policies for themselves and county employees to follow. They said they want guidelines flexible enough to allow workers to attend events without the fear of getting in trouble for taking a cookie, but also something tight enough to prevent the perception or reality that people in government are on the take.
They leaned toward rules even more restrictive than the state's.
"We have to make sure it doesn't happen anymore," Commissioner Chris Kingsley said. "That's the intent, to close the loopholes."
The "loopholes" in county policy became evident in recent months when the spotlight shone on former County Administrator Paul McIntosh.
"The perception, because of what he did, is that we're all dirty," Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "We've got to undo all the damage that he's done. The only way is to make it clear to the public that we're not going to tolerate this."
During his tenure, McIntosh accepted tickets to sporting events and greens fees at private golf clubs from businesspeople with interests before the commission. He did not disclose the gifts until questioned by local reporters, despite commissioners' inquiry.
These reports proved McIntosh's undoing after what commissioners deemed too many scandalous stories involving their top executive over the preceding six months. They forced him out, despite county lawyers' opinion that McIntosh had committed only technical policy violations.
After commissioners dismissed him March 19, McIntosh kept and used a county cell phone, computer and other equipment, as allowed in his separation agreement. But he did not use them solely to ease the transition to newly appointed Administrator Richard Radacky, as commissioners intended.
He did not violate county policies, despite perception.
McIntosh used his county-issued credit card to rent a car when headed to a job interview in California. When challenged, he said the charge was an error and repaid the bill.
McIntosh made more than 70 personal phone calls on the cellular phone, including to a Chinese restaurant, an irrigation company, his lawyer and, while at a job interview in California, to Hernando County officials to argue about his severance package. County policy discourages personal calls but gives the administrator a blanket $50 monthly cell phone allowance.
His total bill, March 15 through May 6, was $118.38, including roaming charges. When asked about the charges, McIntosh repaid the county for his personal use of the phone.
McIntosh used the county computer to search for jobs, plan his travel for job interviews and even to write a contract proposal for his new position in California. County computer policies do not forbid such use.
Perhaps most egregious, McIntosh used a state-issued nonrevenue card, which allows certain government officials to travel toll roads freely during emergencies. He used it 11 times during the week after his dismissal from duty.
He avoided paying $5.75 in tolls. The county has no policy in this area.
According to the state Department of Transportation, though, failure to pay a required toll is a noncriminal moving violation. The fine is $100 per incident.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joanne Hurley said the department holds the county, which requested the card through its Emergency Management Office, responsible for ensuring that cardholders use the cards properly. County officials said they did not know McIntosh had the card until he turned it in.
McIntosh declined to talk about the matters last week, calling them "the far distant past." He said commissioners were free to have a discussion about ethics and his activities, which he fully defended in the past.
"Let them talk," McIntosh said. "I don't care."
Commissioners were divided as to whether they erred in allowing McIntosh to keep equipment after they relieved him of duty. Some said they would not make such an agreement again, while others said the decision was sound.
"We didn't tell him to turn it all in," Kingsley said. "I guess he made a mistake by using them. I just think most people wouldn't have used them."
During his ethics presentation, Hubbard cautioned officials that getting into trouble for misusing their public position is easy. People who do not like you will complain, he said, and even seemingly innocent acts might violate ethical standards.
"If you think it might be wrong," he advised, "it probably is."
People do not give gifts to public employees just to be friendly, Hubbard said. They usually expect something in return, he said, and government employees must keep that in mind, as a gift given, taken or even just talked about in exchange for future consideration is a bribe.
Some gifts are legal, Hubbard explained, but even then they must be properly reported to authorities and must be accepted with the understanding that the public trust may be damaged.
He recommended against a full ban on gift-taking, though, because that could cause damage, too. Consider the fallout, he said, if commissioners publicly reject T-shirts from a local charity that wants to celebrate its successes at a televised meeting.
Commissioner Betty Whitehouse agreed that a total ban was not viable and said she was glad to hear the expert say so. Now, she said, the commission can move ahead with writing a set of rules that will be fair yet firm.
Assistant County Attorney Kurt Hitzemann said he would bring draft policies on these issues to commissioners as soon as possible, perhaps by their meeting on June 4.
-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to email@example.com.
Commissioners are worried about "loopholes" that were used by former County Administrator Paul McIntosh.
BROOKSVILLE -- John Hubbard strode to the podium and placed a sheet from his yellow legal pad on the overhead projector.
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