NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano hadn't heard about the flag controversy, but slowly and methodically over the past few weeks the emails started showing up around the county.
And what a stir they caused.
They questioned the county's patriotism. They asked about certain apparel choices, of all things. They alleged, specifically, that Pasco County was planning to ditch the embroidered American flag patches worn on the sleeves of government workers' uniforms.
All in the name of savings — about $6,000 worth.
Finally, the emails showed up last week in county commissioners' inboxes, setting off alarms.
"I am sure that the 54,000-plus veterans in Pasco County did not serve in the South Pacific during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East for you to show what I feel is a lack of respect for the Country we served," the email said.
Commissioners wanted answers.
County Administrator Michele Baker investigated and found — you guessed it — there are no plans to omit the flag patches. In fact, purchasing director Scott Stromer said, they're being issued now and will continue to be issued.
Nonetheless, commissioners — echoing the dustup created when then-Sen. Barack Obama failed to affix a flag pin to his lapel in 2007 — were quick to affirm the county's patriotism.
"At the present time, the uniforms still display the patches and if the issue ever comes before the board I will not support the removal of the patches," Mariano said.
Commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Ted Schrader said much the same. They didn't believe the rumor, but if the issue does come up, they'll oppose it.
As far as Baker could tell, the rumor originated from the preliminary findings of an ad hoc employee group called the Process Improvement Team.
The team, which started meeting a few months ago to seek cost savings in the county budget, suggested department directors be given latitude to choose uniform materials and colors. This somehow was interpreted to mean the patches were getting the boot.
"However, no changes to the uniform policy have been finalized or distributed," Baker said flatly in an email response to commissioners last week.
Her declarations might be too late, though. The genie is already out, and, seemingly, no one is certain who let it out.
Kathleen Allen of the Ladies Auxillary of VFW Post 7845 in Port Richey said she was one of those who forwarded the email to commissioners.
Who sent it to her?
"I have no clue," she said. "Somebody sent it to me and it said if you agree, send it on. That's what I did."
And so it goes. Officials said they wouldn't be surprised if more such emails show up.
"There's a lot of confusion around this," Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said. "A lot of confusion."
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.