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Blogger turns out to be Hernando's assistant county attorney

Kent Weissinger says he’s an avid news fan. He also says he doesn’t blog while at work.

Kent Weissinger says he’s an avid news fan. He also says he doesn’t blog while at work.

BROOKSVILLE — In a local Internet forum, a poster pitches his new online news site touting it as an alternative to the "two dead-tree media sources'' now informing readers of the news of Hernando County.

The writer states that his report would appear "without the agenda-driven bias'' of the other sources. "That's why I call myself Mr. News,'' the poster proclaims.

Turns out, a more accurate title would be: Mr. Assistant County Attorney.

The site called Hernando News Source Live is registered in the name of Kent Weissinger, Hernando's assistant county attorney.

The site largely links viewers to stories that already have appeared in the Hernando Times and Hernando Today, but it also includes short commentary about the topics covered in the stories.

Some of the most pointed commentary on the fledgling site swipes at recent criticism of the County Attorney's Office, such as how much the office costs taxpayers and why one attorney has much of his salary paid for by the utilities department. The attorney in question is Weissinger.

Not only is Weissinger anonymously weighing in on county issues through his site, he is accessing the site from his county computer, according to Internet usage records obtained by the Times.

While county officials interviewed by the Times gave varying opinions about whether it is appropriate for Weissinger to be blogging about county issues, they all agree they don't want to see it happening while he is on the clock.

The Web site registration information also include's Weissinger's other moniker, flarrfan, which is the base of his e-mail. That screen name, a nod to Weissinger's affinity for trains, is a familiar visitor to the electronic versions of both the Hernando Times and Hernando Today commenting on a variety of topics including the county's legal services.

All such commentary is done under the cover of anonymity for most readers, although in one recent posting flarrfan talks about how his screen name is "not so anonymous'' and some know who he is.

But not his boss, County Attorney Garth Coller, or County Administrator David Hamilton or Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings, none of whom say they are regular visitors to blogs.

Also in the dark was Chris Kingsley, chairman of the County Commission, which employs the county attorney and his staff.

According to records of Weissinger's computer usage, the attorney has logged in multiple hits on his site, Web site since he registered it May 10. In that same period of time, he has also shown hits on the site host GoDaddy.com from his county computer.

In addition, he has logged hits on the Hernando Forums site, where he is registered as Mr. News, and hundreds of hits on various pages of the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune.

Many of those hits are attributable to automatic functions on Weissinger's computer and the computers of many county employees, according to Coller and county technology experts he contacted.

The log also includes nearly daily hits on the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other online media outlets across the country.

Weissinger, a 10-year county employee, readily admits that he is an avid news fan. He was a broadcast journalist before becoming a government attorney some 25 years ago. He also acknowledges visiting news sites at work both to gather information and to keep up on what is happening.

While he admits to making one posting to Hernando News Source Live from his county computer, on the day that a promised new security system didn't come on line as expected, he said he doesn't do his blogging at work. Instead, he spends an hour or more each evening at home gathering content for his site.

In the past, he said he spent much more time from his office posting comments to online forums on the St. Petersburg Times site, but when those forums were removed, he stopped posting.

Weissinger said he doesn't see a problem being an anonymous blogger trying to set the record straight about county issues that he believes are sometimes misrepresented in the press. He also said he had no problem with people knowing who he is and that he would say the same thing to someone face-to-face that he posts on other Web sites.

Coller said that he would not want to see excessive use of a county computer to do that and he would prefer that Weissinger's postings identified who he was. But he did not feel comfortable regulating what his staff members do on their own time.

He also said that he does not have a problem with Weissinger trying to correct erroneous information in his postings but would if he were disseminating incorrect information.

Coller called Weissinger's ethics "A-list.''

The county's technology use policy allows use of the Internet and e-mail for "incidental personal matters.'' But it also states that county computers "may not be used for ... political purposes or to disseminate unsolicited information regarding ... political beliefs.''

That policy and much of the rest of personnel policy is undergoing a review after the recent forced ouster of human resources director Barbara Dupre. Hamilton, the county administrator said he would hope that county attorneys would be "judicious'' in the sharing of their opinions on county issues in public forums and he planned to talk to Coller about the situation.

Commissioners contacted said that Weissinger should not be posting his comments during his work day, but that county employees still had rights.

"Last time, I checked it was pretty much a free society,'' Kingsley said. "Just don't do it at work.''

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she worried about public perception.

"My concern would be the impression people would have with the legal office writing their opinions,'' she said. "But the other side of the coin is that these are his hobbies. So, do you tell someone not to do their hobbies?''

"All of our employees have constitutional rights to their opinion and to blog or create a blog,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins. "Hopefully, most of our employees' time at work should be doing work and I hope that is the case with Mr. Weissinger. ... It's up to Garth to enforce our policies.''

Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Blogger turns out to be Hernando's assistant county attorney 06/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2008 6:50pm]
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