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    Clearwater takes step toward good stewardship

    By DIANE STEINLE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    Slowly, painfully, with a noticeable hitch in its stride, the city of Clearwater this week cleared another hurdle on the path back to responsible, respectable governing at City Hall.

    John Asmar, city planning and development administrator, was forced to resign Tuesday by interim City Manager Bill Horne. Asmar had been a focus of controversy during his tenure with the city, as had the man who brought him into city government, former City Manager Mike Roberto.

    Now, both men are gone, both through forced resignations, both as much for their flawed attitudes toward public service as for their mistakes.

    Asmar didn't tumble from his high post at City Hall because he sent off-color jokes through e-mail to fellow employees. That was just the last log on the woodpile, the one that made the whole stack start to fall.

    And he didn't lose his job because he was an innocent victim of targeting by the Times, as he and some of his supporters apparently believe. Someone with Asmar's record -- a record that clearly indicates he is not suited for work in local government -- was bound to run into trouble in a town as conservative and politically aware as Clearwater.

    The Times looked into Asmar's background, as it does routinely with high-ranking public officials, and found a lot to report to readers. Asmar had experienced a string of controversies and short tenures in his government jobs before he was hired in Clearwater in late 1998, and the problems continued here.

    For example, he ignored the city attorney's advice to stop collecting a fee found to be illegal by the state Supreme Court, forcing the city to refund tens of thousands of dollars.

    Morale in offices Asmar oversaw plummeted, and employees reported to city officials and the Times that Asmar treated them in harsh and demeaning ways. The city Human Relations Department investigated and recommended "clarification" about unwanted terms of endearment and unlawful consideration of marital status in promotions. It also suggested that the city check with Asmar's employees from time to time to make sure that professional conduct was being maintained in the department.

    Another investigation was required after allegations surfaced that Asmar conducted private business on city time and used city equipment and staff. Because of that investigation, the Times asked to see a year's worth of e-mails exchanged by Asmar and his city supervisor and private business partner, Assistant City Manager Garry Brumback. Most e-mails of a personal nature had been purged from their computer files before the Times made the request, but a few were overlooked. That's how e-mails conducting private business and swapping raunchy jokes were discovered.

    It is interesting to see the differences in the reactions of Asmar and Brumback, who were both given letters of rebuke by Horne on Tuesday. Brumback seems mortified and has apologized profusely.

    Tuesday he sent an e-mail to all city employees apologizing for sending inappropriate e-mails, admitting he made a mistake and stating his determination to become a good example for other employees.

    Asmar, on the other hand, wrote a resignation letter that says the city found no basis for any of the allegations against him and touts his integrity and accomplishments. With that kind of arrogance and skewed sense of reality, I predict that similar controversies will plague Asmar in his next job.

    The city's challenge in the next few months is to ferret out and eliminate any lingering negative components of the Mike Roberto legacy, and to return to City Hall a culture that emphasizes public service and careful stewardship of the public's money and trust. All while taking care of regular business, of course.

    It won't be easy. Three members of the five-member City Commission are lame ducks who will be replaced in the March election. And besides, the city charter prevents commissioners from disciplining rank-and-file city employees or getting involved in administrative decisions.

    Those are the purview of Horne, who has no experience as a city manager and showed it during the last two weeks. He sounded too supportive of Asmar in his public comments, appeared reluctant to discipline him and missed an easy opportunity to create through his response a sea change in attitudes at City Hall.

    It could be a long, long winter here in paradise.

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