'Tom the Treeman' backers question boundaries
A city worker may be fired Thursday over Web videos.
By ANNE LINDBERG
Published June 6, 2007
PINELLAS PARK - This city's decision to fire an employee who appeared in two tasteless videos on a shock jock's Web site has angered people across the country who believe officials overstepped a boundary between an employee's work and personal time.
"I hope that the city thinks long and hard before firing Tom Parmentier, " Dustin Sturges wrote in an e-mail to Pinellas Park. "What he did was on his own personal time, out of city uniform and not in a city vehicle. Nobody knew where he worked or what he did for a living until it was in the news."
Sturges added, "We the people are losing our freedoms every day to this kind of bull. What you are doing is wrong!!"
Sturges' e-mail was one of about 25 similar ones Pinellas Park officials have received since they decided last week to fire Parmentier, a nine-year city veteran. Parmentier appears as "Tom the Treeman" in two crude videos on Bubba the Love Sponge's Web site. A hearing to determine Parmentier's fate is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday on the second floor of City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N.
The other e-mailers agreed with Sturges' sentiments.
"What you're attempting to do to Thomas J. Parmentier Jr. is totally WRONG!!, " wrote Joe Beleski of Illinois. "He did nothing illegal and when he's off the clock, whatever he does in his personal time is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!"
But that's not necessarily so.
"People have a sense that they're entitled to a lot more rights than they are, " said Ryan Barack of Kwall, Showers, Coleman and Barack in Clearwater.
Barack is one of 196 lawyers in Florida who are certified as a labor and employment law specialist.
"There is a certain tension between what people do in their private time and what employers' expectations are, " Barack said Monday.
How that tension gets resolved may be as simple as the type of employer - private or public.
Those who work for private employers have the fewest rights, Barack said. Private employers in Florida can generally fire workers for almost anything as long as the employee is not protected by anti-bias rules.
Public employees, however, have more protections.
"Generally, a public sector employee has a right to their continued employment, " Barack said.
Most protected in the hierarchy are unionized public employees, who not only have a contract that may protect them, but also have the backing to hire an attorney to protect their interests.
The catch is that governments can create rules that employees must live by. And the union contract might not override the rules.
One such rule, Barack said, concerns "conduct unbecoming even if it's off-duty conduct and even if it's not unlawful."
Parmentier's videos, Barack said, are "certainly a little weird, " but whether they constitute conduct that's unbecoming to a city employee is the real issue.
As far as Pinellas Park is concerned, Parmentier's conduct has embarrassed the city.
"It's caused a disruption just with the people he works with. There are people who basically have a difficult time looking at him, " Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said.
"There are people that are embarrassed by it and think it's a reflection on everyone who works with him. I think it's a genuine concern that people who don't know him individually (sometimes) lump city employees all together."
Pinellas Park is not the only city that worries about the effect of employee conduct. St. Petersburg also has a rule against improper conduct, said Gary Cornwell, director of human resources.
"The simple answer's going to be we're going to look at it on a case-by-case basis, " Cornwell said. "When it's off the job, the real issue is - is the city going to experience some kind of harm."
Although St. Petersburg has not had any issues quite like the one confronting Pinellas Park, Cornwell said, "we are running into instances like that more and more frequently than we ever have in the past."
Technology is one reason, he said.
In the past, an employee could do something and no one would know about it. Now, evidence of questionable conduct can be spread across the Internet in a matter of moments. Not only that, employees sometimes use the Internet to vent their job frustrations in the form of Web logs, or blogs, that offend employers and prompt firings.
Barack said he believes that off-the-job privacy rights are a "developing area that policymakers need to examine and make some policy decisions about how much control we're going to let employers have over employees' lives. ... You're not signing on to be somebody's indentured servant. You're signing on to be somebody's employee."
Signs of support
Pinellas Park has received about 25 e-mails protesting the proposed firing of a public works employee who, under the name of Tom the Treeman, appeared on Bubba the Love Sponge's Web site in two raunchy videos. Here are some excerpts from those e-mails:
"YOU GUYS ARE IN TROUBLE. HAVE FUN IN COURT FOR WRONGFUL TERMINATION. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! - Arnold Saurin. (The city says this e-mail was received 15 times.)
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"In doing this, you've unfortunately brought down the thunder that is the Bubba Army ... 'Long Live Tom the Tree Man;' may your future civil liberties and defamation of character lawsuits forever bankrupt the city of Pinellas Park." - Matthew Norton
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"How soon will the town be for sale after the law suit that is coming. Do you know what a s--- storm is (?)" - Charles Hargrove
[Last modified June 6, 2007, 07:22:05]
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