Big strife in small towns
By CRISTINA SILVA
Published March 1, 2007
Small-town officials in Pinellas County are more likely to be accused of ethical violations than officials at the county level or in larger cities, according to state records.
Since 2000, various officials in Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach have been named in numerous complaints filed to the state Commission on Ethics, while officials in cities such as Clearwater or St. Petersburg have not faced similar accusations.
In fact, one of the smallest cities in the county, Redington Beach, a beach town of less than 1,600 residents that consists of a few streets along Gulf Boulevard, has had five complaints filed against its public officials, more than any other municipality in the county, records show.
The small nature of these communities, where everyone seems to be watching the neighbors, and the fact that politicians tend to be inexperienced residents who serve for only a term or two, contribute to this situation, legal experts said.
"What ends up happening is that these elected officials, who essentially are volunteers because they are paid so little, they wander into this briar patch and they come out with scratches all over their arms or face," said T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
The state Commission on Ethics was created as a watchdog system for residents concerned about their public officials.
Residents can send in sworn complaints at any time, said Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the commission.
If a public official is found to be in violation of the state Code of Ethics, the case can either be dismissed with no further action or can be sent to the governor, who then chooses whether to impose a fine, Stillman said.
While the state does not keep records on complaints based on a city's population size, about 25 percent of all complaints are filed against municipal elected officials, commission records show. Most complaints are dismissed.
"We are not really concerned with particular reasons why someone files a complaint," Stillman said. "Sometimes somebody might have a political reason or an ulterior motive, but it can be a really good and valid complaint."
Bailey refers to the divisive nature of politics in densely populated small cities as the Gadfly Theory. Small-town elected officials may be more likely to commit a political folly because full-time jobs outside of City Hall conflict with their interests as a commissioner or council member, he said.
But much of the strife in these cities tends to have more to do with the type of resident who wants to live in a close-knit community, Bailey said.
"In our small cities here, there are persons who are oftentimes retirees who make a full-time activity of watching city government," he said. "They are looking for some kind of public forum or recognition and that is tough to get in a larger pond, so to speak."
Madeira Beach Mayor Charles Parker said city officials in small towns often have more contact with residents than county officials, which creates a greater potential for criticism.
"The personalization of small-town politics creates this situation that you may not have at another level," he said. "We have to attend various meetings, and we receive letters and phone calls from residents all the time."
Parker was cited in a 2004 ethics complaint when he was a city commissioner after a resident said he improperly gave his opinion on a matter expected to come before the commission. The case was dismissed.
But Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes, who was recently named in a ethics complaint for approving a city contract that could allegedly stand to benefit him, said politicians anywhere are fair game as potential targets for reproof, regardless of the size of their constituency. Yakes said the complaint is without merit.
"There is always going to be a small percent of people that look for the wrong and a large percent that look for the right," he said.
Official under fire
Here are the Pinellas municipalities where elected officials have been criticized the most since 2000, according to complaints filed with the state Commission on Ethics. These records do not include allegations still under investigation.
Redington Beach: Has had five complaints in six years. Most of the cases were found to be without merit or were dismissed.
Treasure Island: This tourist-friendly city dealt with four complaints in 2002, when the city was faced with a controversial development battle. Former City Commissioner Irving "Butch" Ellsworth was fined $5,000 for voting in favor of zoning changes that would have benefited his employer, the largest fine ever levied on a Pinellas County official.
St. Pete Beach: Had three complaints in two years, mostly stemming from a development battle similar to Treasure Island's.
Madeira Beach: This beachfront city had three complaints in two years. Most were dismissed.
[Last modified March 1, 2007, 07:03:28]
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