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A candidate for Oldsmar City Council says a secretary's work on a civic association's newsletter is wrong.
By ED QUIOCO
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001
OLDSMAR -- For about three years, the city's director of administrative services/assistant city manager has asked her secretary to spend about 20 minutes a week using a city computer to type a newsletter for a civic organization.
On Tuesday night, a candidate for City Council, Deborah Chapman, told the council about the practice and described it as a "most highly inappropriate use of taxpayers' trust in government."
Although City Manager Bruce Haddock described Assistant City Manager Marnie Burns' participation in the Oldsmar/East Lake Rotary Club as a "good thing for the city," Mayor Jeff Sandler directed City Attorney Tom Trask to investigate whether the practice is prohibited by state law or city policy.
"Don't you see a problem . . . allowing this to go on for one organization but not other organizations?" Sandler said. "I realize the end result is a noble cause but to my mind, in my way of thinking, I still think it is an inappropriate use of city resources."
Burns, a current member and former president of the Rotary Club, confirmed that she asked her secretary to do the work weekly since 1998. She declined to say whether she thought her actions were appropriate.
She said the civic organization donates about $20,000 a year to the Oldsmar and East Lake communities in scholarships, sponsored events and donated equipment.
"The club does a tremendous service and all of our residents benefit," Burns said.
Chapman, 41, told council members that she noticed the secretary typing the club's newsletter in January. She said she told Haddock about what she had seen and he responded by saying that he did not have a problem with it.
She cited excerpts from the city's code of ethics and personnel policies and procedures, claiming that what Burns was doing was an offense "punishable by immediate termination."
"When you make excuses for people in authority positions, you set the precedent that because of their position, they are above the rules," Chapman said. "I don't believe anyone in this city is above any rule."
Sandler said allowing the practice to continue will pave the way for other groups to request the same service.
"The issue is whether or not the city ought to use its resources to support . . . this private organization," Sandler said. "Where does it stop and what other private organizations are you going to do this for? Second of all, if you are going to differentiate between them, how do you decide "Well it's okay for this one and not okay for that one.' "
There is no clear-cut answer to whether Burns acted appropriately because the situation involves a civic organization, said Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association.
It's one thing when city officials abuse city resources for their personal financial benefit. But using city resources to help a civic organization "is something that is a little more subjective and could be viewed as helping the local government and helping the citizenry," Frisby said.
There probably is no universal policy that would prohibit something like that, Frisby said. Instead, it will depend on the different policies of each municipality.
"One may say it's okay to do that during your lunch time and another may say, "No you can't do anything but work on local government business on local government equipment,' " Frisby said.
Chapman, who is running on a platform of increasing city services and programs for children, said if the city allows one organization to use city resources then the same benefit should be given to all civic groups.
"If you still find it in your hearts to excuse these infractions, we should call every club and association in Oldsmar and allow them equal access to city staff, city equipment and taxpayers' money," Chapman told council members.