'May I have your attention, please?'
As the public pleads issues before the Pasco commission, three members surf the Web.
By GARRETT THEROLF and MATTHEW WAITE
Published February 26, 2006
Ted Schrader tracks stocks on tbo.com. Fellow Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon favors eBay and golf-related sites like hirekogolf.com. Commissioner Pat Mulieri fiddles with her America Online e-mail account.
The three commissioners regularly visited those Web sites and many others the past three years, which is totally unremarkable except for one fact: They did so during meetings of the Pasco County Commission while ostensibly focused on public business.
Personal use of county computers, meanwhile, has gotten rank-and-file county employees fired.
Karen Donahue waited two hours for her three minutes.
She hoped to persuade commissioners to oppose a proposed townhouse development that she and other residents of a Land O'Lakes neighborhood feared would snarl traffic and lower property values.
Donahue nervously adjusted the microphone as she approached the lectern at 8:08 p.m. "Good evening," she began.
On the dais, Schrader looked down at his laptop computer. He typed in www.coppermountain.com which took him to the Web site of a broadband Internet service provider in Lake Oswego, Ore. Just before 8:09 p.m., Schrader shifted to Google.
At the lectern, Donahue spoke about traffic on her street, Peninsular Drive.
Schrader moved on to onthesnow.com to check on snow conditions for the Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado. He stayed on the site for the final minute and a half of Donahue's presentation, clicking among five Web pages at the site.
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Schrader said his Web use during Donahue's presentation was in preparation for a vacation. He bristled at the notion that he did not give her his full attention.
"You're implying I can't do two things at one time," he said, insisting that he did nothing wrong.
He also said he did not see any connection between his Web use and that of county employees fired for the same activity.
Simon at first said, "There is a reason for every single site I visited." His eBay visits, he insisted, could be justified as research on prices for county equipment.
After he was presented with additional data, he acknowledged checking "what Elmo costs or what the latest golf club is going for."
By the end of the interview, he said he regretted his Web use and would remove the Web browser from his computer.
Mulieri said she could not recall the personal Web use during meetings, suggesting that the county records were wrong.
She said repeatedly that she was a hard-working commissioner and that the St. Petersburg Times should review how many constituent e-mails she returns at night and on weekends.
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Donahue and her fellow residents faced an uphill battle. The county staff had recommended that the townhome project be approved; it would be unusual for even one commissioner to oppose the staff on such a routine issue.
But that evening, two commissioners went along with the residents. Donahue needed one more vote. A thumbs down from Schrader would have given her a victory. But Schrader voted yes, allowing the townhome project to proceed.
"This was probably routine to them," Donahue said when a reporter told her that Schrader had visited eight Web pages while she spoke, "but this was very important to us, and I was very respectful. ... I'm very surprised but mostly disappointed."
Schrader said, "She's entitled to her opinion ... I think I've fulfilled my duties and responsibilities in this case."
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Pasco County rules prohibit employees from using the Internet for nonwork purposes "at all times."
Like many other workplaces, the county uses software to track employees suspected of misusing their computers, and has fired people for it, said personnel director Barbara DeSimone. She fired two employees last year.
Has she ever looked into Internet use by the commissioners, who make $76,497 a year?
"No," she said.
Each Pasco commissioner uses a publicly owned laptop, connected wirelessly to the Internet from commission chambers in Dade City and New Port Richey.
The Times obtained the Internet records of all five commissioners from the same software that DeSimone uses. The Times focused mainly on the commissioners' Internet use during public meetings. This revealed the secret lives of commissioners on the dais.
The information dates to 2003 and shows that two commissioners - Jack Mariano and Ann Hildebrand - apparently never visited a Web site unrelated to county business.
"If I'm doing county business, I'm doing county business," Mariano said. "Even if the phone rings ... if it's not a county call, I switch to my cell phone."
"I think I'm more comfortable using a public computer for public purposes," Hildebrand said.
Schrader, Simon and Mulieri fall at the other extreme, though all three used the Web less last year than in 2003 and 2004. Among the trio, Schrader's personal use of the Internet during meetings is by far the most, Mulieri's the least.
In 2005, Schrader accounted for all but 40 of the 708 Web pages visited by the three commissioners while the year's 28 public meeting were in session. (The numbers may somewhat overstate the page visits because the county's tracking software records both pages visited and pages that automatically come up, such as password screens.)
In all, Schrader visited enough Web sites during meetings over the last three years that it would have taken hours to view them all.
"Over the last few years, if it adds up to hours, that is definitely insignificant," Schrader said.
* * *
The big issue during the May 10, 2005, commission meeting was customers complaining about "black water" from Aloha Utilities. The county was considering an ordinance demanding that the private utility improve its water quality. In the midst of the discussion, from 4:13 to 4:31 p.m., Schrader navigated six pages on expedia.com. "I was probably checking flight fares," he said.
The commission meeting of Dec. 2, 2003, began at 1:30 p.m. By 1:33, Simon was on eBay. At 1:46, it was on to hirekogolf.com. At 2:51, Simon clicked on that day's agenda. But, four minutes later, he was back on hirekogolf.com.
The Jan. 24, 2006, meeting returned from recess at 6:06 p.m. Seven minutes later, Mulieri went to the Road Runner Internet service provider page, then to aol.com, where she spent the next 11 minutes checking an e-mail account. Mulieri also visits the Web site of Pasco-Hernando Community College, where she is a professor emeritus.
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It is difficult to ensure that elected officials pay attention during meetings, or even show up to vote.
In Pasco, rules that prohibit county employees from misusing the Web do not apply to commissioners. No state law regulates county commissioners' Web use; if there were, public officials could be punished for using the Web with "wrongful intent."
A California appeals court intervened in a rezoning case involving the Blue Zebra strip club after viewing a videotape showing the Los Angeles City Council, dressed casually for Hawaiian shirt day, chatting and milling about during the hearing. One council member talked on a cell phone. The court ordered a rehearing, deciding that no one had really heard Blue Zebra's arguments at the first hearing.
Simon said he agreed with that principle: "If I was convinced that someone hadn't listened, would I look to give that person another opportunity? Yes. Everybody should be heard."
Times staff writers Bridget Hall Grumet, Molly Moorhead and Jamal Thalji and researchers Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
[Last modified February 26, 2006, 01:48:07]
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