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Pinellas commissioners scold colleague Norm Roche over county card use

LARGO — Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche's decision to personally order a yard cleared of debris at public expense landed him in the political woodshed Tuesday.

Most of his commission colleagues delivered a tongue-lashing to the first-year commissioner, using terms like "embarrassing" and "disturbing" over his violating the Pinellas charter and county purchasing policies.

Roche used a county purchasing card to hire a company for $250 on Sept. 26 to clean vegetation and debris at an abandoned home near Largo. After years of complaints from neighbors, Roche ignored suggestions by county attorneys and staff to let a code enforcement case play out.

Lacking power to make Roche repay the money, commissioners decided to bar themselves from using the cards for operational costs.

"It would be crazy," Commissioner John Morroni said of using the cards for work when someone complains. "We'd want to do something for everybody, and it'd be millions of dollars."

Roche defended his actions but claimed ignorance of how to raise concerns at a public meeting — though it's a common practice by commissioners, some of whom seemed surprised at the suggestion.

"It wasn't even part of my thought process, which could be my error," said Roche, a former county employee elected last year on his fourth try. "I was going through the course I assumed. I didn't know there would be another step of coming to the board about a particular house."

The Pinellas charter for decades has barred commissioners from being involved in the administration's actions. The purchasing code prohibits cardholders from using them to buy services Pinellas already contracts for, including mowing and debris clearing.

Roche disclosed his actions Oct. 20 but didn't mention the card. Morroni and Commissioners Susan Lat­vala and Karen Seel said they inferred from what he said that Roche personally covered the bill.

"And that was a lie," said Seel, describing Roche's decisions as "disturbing."

"Any other employee would be terminated," Seel added, calling Roche's actions "willful misuse."

Like other cardholders, Roche signed an agreement to follow county policies. An employee who violated the agreement can be fired.

A records request by the St. Petersburg Times turned up the purchase, along with $2,605 for a desk, meeting table and chairs from a consignment shop for his office.

County officials said furniture was available, but Roche insisted that nothing panned out and that County Administrator Bob LaSala offered to buy some. LaSala told the Times he did not recall that.

None of the other six commissioners defended Roche. Neither did LaSala or County Attorney Jim Bennett. County staff compiled handouts reinforcing proper procedures.

That left Roche defending himself from criticism mainly from fellow Republicans.

Roche said he didn't lie because he never specifically stated he personally paid for it. In fact, he did refer vaguely to the cost as "tax exempt" last month, the only clue that he tapped the county's purchasing power.

He also denied violating the charter because he "did not direct staff." And he suggested he was being targeted.

"Staff time, money and resources is being spent to just show I did something wrong, that's how I feel," Roche said, later saying the board had no authority to judge him.

He added: "I'm not embarrassed for acting and believing I did what was right to do."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas commissioners scold colleague Norm Roche over county card use 11/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 12:05am]
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