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Norm Roche's anonymous online snark strains city, county relations

Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche didn’t respond to questions on Thursday.

LARA CERRI | Times (2010)

Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche didn’t respond to questions on Thursday.

Fellow politicians blasted Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche on Thursday for using a secret alter ego to zing them, straining city-county relations and the commission's own dynamics at a crucial time.

Roche's derogatory comments about St. Petersburg baffled Mayor Bill Foster.

"He comes from a darker place than I can even imagine,'' Foster said. "And that's kind of a window into the psyche of a county commissioner."

The St. Petersburg Times reported Wednesday that Roche acknowledged writing comments on the Times' website, tampabay.com, as "Reality.''

Among other things, Reality wrote that St. Petersburg was defined by "thug shootings" and "prostitutes beatings" and "social service recipients.'' Other comments questioned the ethics of fellow commissioners.

The revelations rippled through a meeting of the Florida Association of Counties in the Florida Panhandle, which Pinellas Commissioners Susan Latvala and Ken Welch were attending. Both had been the subject of anonymous barbs.

The news followed an October vote Roche led to end the fluoridation of drinking water and Roche's use of a county-issued purchasing card to clear yard debris over the advice of county staff.

"We've always had a well-respected County Commission, as long as I can remember. And now we don't," said Latvala, calling Roche's actions "embarrassing."

Roche, who lives near Clearwater, declined comment about the furor Thursday. He said he would answer questions by e-mail about matters the commission would consider. He did not respond to an e-mail.

Some of Reality's racially charged comments, coupled with statements about St. Petersburg crime, drew criticism from Manuel Sykes, president of the city's NAACP chapter.

"If you are of a certain racial group, it's wrongheaded if not altogether racist to generalize the problems of another community without taking a look at your own issues as well," Sykes said.

"To do it in anonymous fashion or using a pseudonym, it's cowardice added on it.''

After a Times report on fluoride and children's health Oct. 18, Reality's comment included: "Out of all the underprivileged folks they could interview, they picked one that needed an interpreter? Think about it."

In another post last year, Reality complained of "race pimps."

"And for God's sake ... Learn how to buy clothes that fit you so you don't walk around looking like an idiot thug trying to hold your pants up. Whitie isn't to blame for your ignorance."

In one comment this year, Reality criticized St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse for "pinheaded comments" in a City Council endorsement.

Yet Roche and Nurse had lunch a few months ago without a hint of animosity, Nurse said.

These are tense times between the city and the county.

Pinellas has proposed deep cuts in EMS spending, which St. Petersburg strongly opposes. Months of discussions could come to a head Monday when the St. Petersburg City Council decides whether to sue the county over the issue.

Roche's anonymous comments make the debate more "uphill," Nurse said, and won't help the County Commission. "It's very clear that the internal dynamics by the County Commission are damaged by this," he said.

Latvala said she will discuss with County Administrator Bob LaSala how to mend relations among commissioners, but questioned what could be done.

Roche was elected a year ago, joining Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, who were elected in 2008. The three sometimes clash with the four longer-term members.

Bostock and Brickfield didn't endorse Reality's comments, but didn't criticize them. Commissioner John Morroni could not be reached.

Brickfield and Bostock downplayed possible damage to internal and city-county relations.

"I'm not saying they're not worse. This certainly isn't a positive step," Bostock said. "But ultimately this is the city of St. Petersburg dealing with the County Commission, not the single commissioner."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

Norm Roche's anonymous online snark strains city, county relations 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 11:54pm]
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