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Election should bring new era of honesty

A Times Editorial
Published January 25, 2008


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Most elected officials graciously thank the voters and their colleagues before leaving office, then they bow out. Safety Harbor Commissioner Kathleen Earle thanked a few folks Tuesday night as she prepared to leave office mid-way through her term because of "family reasons." Then she dropped a bombshell that left a roomful of city residents and probably some in the television audience slack-jawed.

"While the vast majority of city residents are honest and decent and forthright," Earle said, "there is a virulent, cowardly and ethically bankrupt faction of individuals in this city who are willing to do, say or write anything irrespective of the truth to ensure that they get their way."

Earle declared that throughout the almost two years she has been a city commissioner, she has been harassed and attacked repeatedly by anonymous individuals who spread false rumors about her all over town. She decided to use her final meeting to give examples and name names because, she said, the work of that faction "has been covered up for years" in Safety Harbor.

Earle's decision to speak out in such a way has sparked controversy. Some believe she should have just ridden off into the sunset. However, speaking out the way she did took courage - after all, Earle and her family live there - and the shame of it is, Earle is right.

For many years, divisive and vengeful political activity has roiled civic affairs in Safety Harbor. Much of it goes on behind the scenes, but nonetheless, there is a poisonous undercurrent which spawns divisiveness and rumor-mongering and can even influence commission decisionmaking.

Earle is not the first victim. She mentioned another Tuesday night: Kara Bauer, who resigned from the commission recently to move to Texas, but who, according to Earle, often found her car tires deflated after she left City Commission meetings. Earle and Bauer are just the latest generation of Safety Harbor officials subjected to such nastiness.

At Tuesday's meeting, Earle clearly accused former Mayor Pam Corbino of some of the bad behavior. There was bad blood between the two from the beginning of Earle's term in March 2006. Earle eventually filed a state ethics complaint against Corbino after learning she tried to get a city employee to give her Earle's Social Security number. The Ethics Commission did not find Corbino guilty of misbehavior.

But clearly, that is not where it ended. Earle revealed for the first time Tuesday that she has been under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Local resident and former city board member Gary Jones, using information supplied by others, filed a complaint with the state Division of Elections claiming Earle committed election fraud by lying about her Safety Harbor residency.

City codes require that residents live in the city for at least one year before an election in which they are a candidate. Earle, who previously lived in Maryland, ran for office in March 2006, so she should have been a resident at least since March 2005. Earle signed a sworn statement confirming she had been, but some people apparently didn't believe it.

The FDLE investigator who came to Safety Harbor wound up chasing rumors passed around by people who had no evidence of any wrongdoing by Earle, among them a local house painter and the owners of a couple of local businesses. The FDLE report also reveals that Corbino had her personal attorney check when Earle's house was painted. The instigators' flimsy stories began to collapse as the investigation continued.

Earle, however, gave the FDLE plenty of evidence she had established legal residence in Safety Harbor before March 2005, including utility and cable connection records and receipts from moving companies, airlines, banks, veterinary offices and home improvement stores - even a state fishing license.

The FDLE cleared Earle of the allegations - allegations she said were based on "outright lies" circulated around town "in an attempt to assassinate my character." Those allegations represented only one of the attacks she said she had to fend off while in office.

While Earle said it was not those attacks, but instead other personal reasons, that led her to resign about a year before her term expired, can anyone doubt what negative impact the experience must have had on her?

Yet Earle did not reveal the FDLE investigation until her last meeting, and while she was in office, she was a diligent public official who did her homework and tried to make the best decisions she could for the community.

It is possible - healthy, even - to have civil disagreements in the political arena. And it is the right of elected officials to make the decisions they feel are best for the entire community - it is their duty, in fact, and they should not have to endure scurrilous personal attacks for doing so.

Earle said she hoped such behavior would stop now in Safety Harbor. That wish was echoed by Mayor Andy Steingold, who has personal knowledge of such behavior.

There is an election in Safety Harbor on Tuesday. Residents should inform themselves about the candidates and choose carefully. Following Earle's revelations, perhaps the newly seated commission will experience fewer personal attacks and find the job more fulfilling.

[Last modified January 24, 2008, 21:15:21]


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