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A Times Editorial

Council member violated city charter, public trust

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

Oldsmar City Council member Marcelo Caruso came within a hair of having to forfeit his office last week, but judging from his public comments and their tone, he didn't learn from the experience.

To recap: Caruso didn't attend three consecutive City Council meetings in September. The city charter, a collection of ordinances approved by city voters, states that any council member who has three consecutive unexcused absences shall forfeit his office. It also states that the City Council will judge the grounds for forfeiture and that a council member may request a public hearing.

City Council member David Tilki, a by-the-book kind of guy, was the first to note that a council member was in violation of the charter because of absences. At a subsequent meeting on Oct. 1, Caruso asked his council colleagues to excuse his absences after the fact. They took a vote and split 2-2, meaning that Caruso's absences were unexcused. The council set Caruso's forfeiture hearing for Oct. 29.

Did Caruso issue a formal public apology for missing the meetings and violating the charter? No.

Did he seem embarrassed that his attendance record was poor enough to put his office at risk? No.

Instead, Caruso went on the offensive.

He wrote a letter accusing the Times of "sensationalizing" what he called "a fairly routine matter." Forfeiture hearings are not routine in any North Pinellas city.

He accused Tilki of launching a "witch hunt" and pointed out that Tilki once scheduled a personal vacation that conflicted with a council meeting.

He lashed out at what he called "political posturing, premature campaigning and self-serving rhetoric."

Caruso's response was arrogant and unprofessional. Here are some things that Oldsmar residents need to know:

When new City Council members are sworn in, they swear to uphold the city charter. That means all the time, not just when it is convenient. Caruso, who swore to uphold the charter, violated it by missing three consecutive meetings and not asking in advance to be excused. Tilki, on the other hand, upheld the charter by initiating the charter-specified process to address the violation.

The three consecutive absences in September created the charter violation, but those are not the only meetings Caruso has missed. Caruso also didn't show up for a special planning meeting earlier this year, which had to be canceled. Caruso was not present for another council meeting, but participated in the meeting via speakerphone from Brazil, where he grew up and still regularly visits family. Also, Caruso apparently attended only two of six meetings of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, on which he is the city's official representative.

Questions about Caruso's honesty and trustworthiness are being raised, and legitimately so. When confronted about the missed regional planning council meetings, Caruso initially claimed that he attended the meetings but just missed roll call. When questioned about missing the Sept. 17 and Sept. 18 council meetings, he initially said he missed those meetings because he went to Brazil to visit his doctor. Later, it was revealed that Caruso actually went on a weeklong cruise to Belize, but took a side trip by plane to see his Brazilian doctor on the 18th.

Voters usually like for the people they elect to be truthful and straightforward all the time, not just when backed into it.

The Oldsmar Charter has an attendance rule to prevent just the sort of nonchalance that Caruso has displayed toward meeting attendance. The provision helps to ensure that Oldsmar residents will get proper representation from those they elect.

The charter provision is not designed to prevent elected officials from taking vacations with their families, handling their business affairs or seeing their doctors. But they must go to some effort to schedule those things around council meetings or ask to be excused by the council so they can be away without risking a charter violation.

Caruso apparently thought the rules didn't apply to him. They do. Only a majority vote by the council to excuse his September absences saved him from having to forfeit the job voters elected him to do. The least he could do is say he's sorry.

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