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    Clearwater official is accused of deception

    Ed Hart is stirring up controversy, including the question of whether he lied during a development discussion that changed a vote.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- Commissioner Ed Hart's colleagues have become sharply critical of him and say he has an accuracy problem.

    Hart doesn't see a problem.

    "I pride myself that I am very honest, very trustworthy and very credible," Hart said.

    But here's what his fellow commissioners said last week:

    "I approached this job as being the ultimate test of one's integrity and honesty," said Commissioner Whitney Gray, who complained at Thursday's commission meeting that Hart had "patently deceived" the public with statements in recent newspaper articles.

    "To split hairs and to hide behind technicalities is a grievous insult," Gray told the Times. "The public puts their trust in you. They want you to tell the truth. And I don't know why that's so hard for some people."

    Mayor Brian Aungst suggested Hart has a "pattern of practice" that merits scrutiny.

    "We need to be forthright in not misleading the public," Aungst said. "We ask our staff to live to the highest standards possible and we need to practice what we preach. I not sure if what's happened recently is in line with that."

    Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton said, "I feel instances have put Ed into a position where when he speaks, we have to take it with a grain of salt."

    Only Commissioner Bill Jonson didn't want to comment, except to say he didn't know of any "purposefully misleading" statements made by any commissioner.

    The tension between Hart and fellow commissioners has built gradually.

    During the past two years, Aungst and Hart have argued several times about statements Hart made to the media and in e-mails, some attacking City Manager Bill Horne's credibility.

    Earlier this year, Hart's fellow commissioners questioned why he told the St. Petersburg Times the city was being "controlled by and for developers." At first Hart denied saying it and suggested it was taken out of context, then he stood by it.

    Then a week ago, speculation abounded whether Hart made inaccurate statements at a March meeting at which the commission rejected a proposal for an office complex project on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard near McMullen-Booth Road.

    At the meeting, Hart said he talked with two state senators, who could help the city secure grants to purchase the oak-tree covered site of the proposed office complex for a park.

    Hart said that if the commission refused to rezone the land to allow the office complex, it could be less expensive and easier to purchase. Then the commission flipped a previous decision and killed the office project.

    The owner of the land sued the city.

    Deposed under oath recently, Hart stated that he had not talked to the senators, only to their aides, and the conversation happened two years before the commission vote.

    "I can see why the lady who owned the property there had some question and had to hire an attorney," said Aungst, who has politically wrangled with Hart the past three years. "I'm just very shocked and disappointed because there's definitely two different things that are said. I read what was said in the deposition, and I read what was said that night. I kind of did a doubletake."

    Hart said he twisted his tongue that night, but basically, what he said was accurate.

    And in Hart's defense, Sen. Jim Sebesta stated that he doesn't see what the big deal is because talking to one of his aides is like talking to him. It was David Hemerick who flipped his vote that night. Hemerick stated in a deposition that Hart's comments weren't critical to his decision, attorneys say.

    Hart's attorney, Nathan Hightower, suggested that attorneys Tim Johnson and Ed Armstrong, who are representing the people who wanted the office complex, are fueling speculation about Hart's deposition as part of a smear campaign.

    Hightower noted that the two development attorneys stand to gain by whomever is on the City Commission. Hart is up for election in March, although he hasn't announced if he's running.

    And all that brings us to last week, when relations on the City Commission suddenly and completely imploded. The scene was the commission's chambers at City Hall. The topic was next year's budget.

    Aungst, Hamilton and Gray all questioned statements Hart made.

    And Horne sat in his office one afternoon, reading an article written by Hart in a beach newspaper about the budget. Horne underlined statements he felt were misleading with a black, felt-tip pen.

    "I will not be a part of trying to fool the public at any time," Hart stated in the article. Horne underlined it.

    Hart had argued there should be no new expenses in the budget. The example that followed described a $100,000 fund for the city manager's discretionary spending. Horne underlined it.

    Horne said the fund wasn't anything new and he had, in fact, reduced its size.

    "Slush fund," said Horne, pointing to another of Hart's statements. "Why would he use that term?"

    "I have had to work really hard to be calm," Horne said. "I am really working hard to pretty much eliminate all my feelings about Vice Mayor Hart."

    Gray, especially, seemed upset about some of Hart's remarks last week.

    Hart had complained to a reporter that he was not informed of Gray's interest in being appointed to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's powerful road board, on which Hart had been serving.

    Gray felt that Hart's comments implied she had illegally communicated her desires for the appointment to other commissioners -- but not to Hart.

    Gray then explained Thursday night how the city had delivered a note to Hart's home, explaining her interest in competing for the appointment.

    Also, she noted, Horne had e-mailed Hart about her interest -- and Hart himself had responded to the e-mail.

    So, Gray asked, why did Hart tell a reporter days later that he knew nothing about the issue?

    "It impugnes my integrity as well as the staff," Gray said. "I won't tolerate that and I want an apology."

    Hart said he hadn't seen the note delivered to his home, nor had he read the e-mail from Horne carefully, and he apologized for his mistake.

    Gray was appointed to the MPO Thursday by Aungst and Hamilton, although Hart wanted to keep his job.

    "I think that all this definitely creates a barrier between us, yes, and it's difficult to overcome in the day-to-day communications at the meetings," Gray said of Hart. "It makes the relationship harder."

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