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St. Pete Beach warns clerk about credit card use

ST. PETE BEACH — City Clerk Teri McMaster was formally reprimanded Friday for charging more than $1,000 in personal expenses to a city credit card during a professional trip to Reno, Nev.

The formal "employee warning" stipulated that "any further infractions of this kind will result in another recommendation to the City Commission for disciplinary action, up to including discharge."

McMaster's improper use of the credit card came to light when the city's finance department received her monthly credit card statement at the end of June. She subsequently gave the city two checks to cover the personal charges.

City Manager Mike Bonfield first brought the issue to the City Commission during its meeting Tuesday.

McMaster had charged more than $1,000 in personal expenses to her city-issued credit card during a May trip to an annual conference of master city clerks.

"I have enough of a concern that I felt the situation warranted consideration for disciplinary action," Bonfield told the commission. "I apologize this has to come to you in public, but that is the environment we live in."

Bonfield said the city had agreed to pay $765 for the registration and $325 for meals, but the cost of travel and hotel room was to be paid by the city clerk.

"It was also understood the city clerk's spouse would be traveling and they were planning to stay a few extra days for a personal vacation at her own expense," Bonfield said in a memo to the commission.

Instead, McMaster used a city credit card for airline baggage charges, for about $50 in merchandise at Sears, and for several cash advances and finance charges at the Grand Sierra Casino.

"At no time did the city clerk before, during or after the conference advise or request from the city manager the desire or the need to use the city credit card for cash advances or other expenses listed below for her personal use," Bonfield said.

Bonfield said McMaster's use of the credit card violated several city rules including using her official position for personal advantage and "deliberately or negligently" misusing city property (the credit card).

On Tuesday, the commission unanimously turned the issue over to Bonfield to resolve.

"She has done a good job. This was an error in judgment," said Commissioner Bev Garnett. "She has probably beat herself up far worse than anything we could do."

Commissioner Al Halpern suggested rather than conducting an investigation the city might bar McMaster from future use of the city's credit card.

Mayor Mike Finnerty said he preferred that the city manager handle the matter.

According to the St. Pete Beach charter, the city clerk can only be hired, disciplined and fired by the commission. At the same time, the office's operations are under the daily supervision of the city manager.

McMaster declined Friday to comment on the disciplinary action.

A consultant hired by Bonfield last year criticized the City Clerk's Office's "work culture" and called for the clerk to provide stronger leadership for her department.

At the time, completion of minutes of City Commission and other board meetings were frequently a year or more behind.

According to McMaster, the backlog in transcribing minutes largely was the result of staff cutbacks and many extra commission meetings that frequently exceeded five hours and occasionally extended well past midnight.

McMaster, who makes $68,628 a year, was hired as city clerk in 1998 to fill a post vacant for more than a year after the former City Clerk Jane Ellsworth was fired in February 1997, reinstated and then allowed to resign, taking with her a $110,000 settlement that ended her lawsuit against the city over alleged sexual harassment by former City Manager Danny Walker.

St. Pete Beach warns clerk about credit card use 07/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 5:42pm]
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