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    A Times Editorial

    Caruso could have avoided mess

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 4, 2002

    For the second time in seven years, members of the Oldsmar City Council must decide whether they have the authority -- the obligation, even -- to toss one of their own out of office.

    The last time was in 1995, when then-council member Rosemary Wiseman accused Mayor Jerry Beverland and councilman Daryl Landis of giving orders to city employees in violation of the city charter. The punishment called for in the charter: forfeiture of office. But Beverland and Landis denied wrongdoing, and the whole process collapsed in a sticky mire of legal questions.

    This time there is more clarity.

    Councilman Marcelo Caruso missed three consecutive meetings of the City Council in September. The Oldsmar city charter says that any council member who has three consecutive unexcused absences from council meetings "shall forfeit his/her office."

    Caruso doesn't deny that he missed the meetings. He doesn't deny that his absences were unexcused. What is not known is where Caruso was while his colleagues were meeting to conduct the city's business.

    In late September Caruso told a Times reporter he missed the Sept. 3 council meeting because he had a fever. He said he missed the Sept. 17 regular meeting and the Sept. 18 work session because he was in his native Brazil seeing a doctor for injuries he suffered when he was beaten by muggers in Brazil in July.

    When Caruso learned that fellow council member David Tilki had placed discussion of Caruso's absences on the agenda for this week's council meeting, he accused Tilki of unfairly picking on him. Tilki and Caruso have been on opposite sides of several controversial issues.

    But when the discussion opened Tuesday night, Caruso admitted that he actually was on a ship cruising to Belize, a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, when the Sept. 17 council meeting was held. He claimed that he took the cruise to Belize because it was a less expensive way to get to Brazil for his doctor's appointment. He said a friend picked him up in Belize and flew him to Brazil.

    A cruise to Belize sounds more like a vacation than inexpensive transportation. But why Caruso was away is not the issue. The issue is whether Caruso has fulfilled his charter-required duties and, if not, what should happen to him.

    The city charter sets forth the rules that government shall follow. The voters, not the elected officials, make those rules by approving every provision of the charter in public referendums. The voters of Oldsmar decided that if a council member has three consecutive, unexcused absences, he shall forfeit his office.

    But then the charter language muddies the waters a bit. It says that the remaining members of the City Council will judge the grounds for forfeiture and declare the forfeiture. And it says that the member accused of the misconduct may demand a public hearing.

    In this case, unlike the 1995 case, the evidence is clear. Caruso missed the meetings. The council had not excused the absences; therefore, it seems the council's only legal course of action is to declare that Caruso must forfeit his office.

    But in politics, even black-and-white issues somehow turn gray. At Tuesday's meeting, Caruso asked the council to excuse his absences after the fact. Council member Don Bohr, one of Caruso's two political allies on the council, obliged by making the motion. When the vote was taken, it was a 2-2 tie, with Beverland and Bohr voting to excuse the absences and Tilki and Brian Michaels voting no. A tie is considered a failure, so Caruso's absences were not excused.

    Now a public hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 29 so council members can decide whether Caruso should be removed from office. Residents who closely follow local politics already are taking sides. If Caruso is removed from office, Beverland will lose the 3-2 majority he has enjoyed since being elected last year. So Beverland's supporters also are lining up behind Caruso.

    City Attorney Tom Trask will have his hands full with this one. There is a good possibility that another tie vote will occur at the public hearing. Then what?

    The three consecutive absences at the center of this dispute are not the only meetings Caruso has missed since being elected. The public's best interest certainly is served by having a charter that requires elected officials to be present when meetings are held. An elected official who misses meetings regularly is not representing those who elected him. On the other hand, everyone -- even elected officials -- should get some time off to vacation with family or handle emergencies. Officials merely need to ask to be excused. Caruso could have avoided putting the city through this messy ordeal by just following the rules.

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