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A Times Editorial

Change is in the air at Clearwater City Hall

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

Change is happening at Clearwater City Hall, and it looks good.

That does not mean that everything is perfect, or that no mistakes will be made in the future. But in some small, yet significant ways, the culture of City Hall is starting to change.

Take, for instance, the new city employee telephone policy developed by Interim City Manager Bill Horne.

The policy takes the common-sense position that city phones should be used primarily for city business. It forbids city employees to make personal long-distance calls from work phones unless they charge the calls to a personal credit card. It states that city cell phones should be used only for city business unless the employee has an emergency, in which case there is a procedure employees must use to reimburse the city for the cost of the call. The policy prohibits calls to 900 numbers.

Would a policy this tough have been enacted a year ago under former City Manager Mike Roberto? Probably not. In fact, it was under Roberto that some city staffers apparently got the impression that it was okay to mix city business and personal business, even if taxpayers wound up paying the tab.

But Horne forced out Planning and Development Administrator John Asmar after telephone problems and some embarrassing e-mails surfaced. He also issued public letters of rebuke for those e-mails to both Asmar and another city administrator involved in the e-mail exchanges. That probably wouldn't have happened before, either.

Horne, in his effort to fix problems in city government, sometimes reminds us of someone laboring to push a big rock up a steep hill. First, it's hard work. Second, if he is inattentive to the task for even a minute, the rock rolls back down the hill.

Horne was a top city administrator under Roberto, but there is increasing evidence that he probably was not comfortable with Roberto's modus operandi, which brought public censure, humiliating revelations and many conflicts to city government. Since Roberto was forced out and the City Commission named Horne interim manager, he has sent numerous signals to city staffers that he expects them to behave differently.

Horne also is making an effort to share more information with the public, keep commissioners better informed and give the staff the time and support it needs to do its job well.

He's not a bad referee, either. While Roberto's presence at public meetings seemed to stir up a crowd, Horne has shown a talent for keeping discussions on track and defusing potentially tense situations.

Roberto was often criticized for moving too fast, and the City Commission he worked for got slammed by the public for going along with his rushed projects without adequate study. Horne moves at a much slower pace, and city commissioners also seem to have learned the wisdom of more careful deliberation when the public's money is on the table.

Change takes time, and there is only so much Horne can do as an interim manager and with his limited experience at the top job. But it is good to see someone trying to put the house in order.

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