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Officials demand campaign ad be pulled

County officials said Wednesday they will ask county fire investigator John Russo to cancel a televised campaign advertisement that he filmed standing in front of two county fire trucks.

Russo is a candidate for the County Commission District 2 seat and a deputy fire marshal. County Administrator Tony Shoemaker said Wednesday Russo broke a rule barring county employees from using county equipment for personal use, he may be subject to disciplinary action.

The 30-second ad features Russo dressed in a firefighting suit as two county paramedics and a firefighter respond to a staged traffic accident in the background. "For 12 years, I've been saving lives in Citrus County," Russo begins.

Russo said the county personnel manual doesn't specifically prohibit what he did. Nevertheless, with his support, one of Russo's campaign workers contacted county Public Safety Director Tad Stone on Wednesday and offered to reimburse the county for use of the fire trucks.

Russo said Stone called back to decline the offer and directed that the ads be pulled. Stone went home ill later Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

"I'd think they'd want to be reimbursed," Russo said in an interview after work Wednesday. "I can't help but think that's politically motivated."

Shoemaker said the issue is the county personnel manual, which prohibits employees from using vehicles or supplies for personal use.

The manual does not specifically address a situation like Russo's advertisement, although Shoemaker said he may propose addressing that after the election.

"I don't think anybody had anticipated this could happen," said Dwight Stone, county director of employee relations.

The manual allows for discipline ranging from a reprimand up to three days of unpaid suspension. Shoemaker said he'll leave that decision to Stone.

The 30-second spot began running last week on the Telesat cable system and is scheduled to debut Monday on Time Warner Cable.

Shoemaker said he hadn't seen the commercial.

It cost $350 to produce, and another $1,000 to broadcast on both systems, Russo said. He said he'd make a decision on whether to pull it after consulting with campaign staff.

He said his staff offered to reimburse the county $70, which he figured as two trucks costing $35 an hour to rent. That's roughly how long the taping took. The county has billed users that amount in the past, he said.

Russo also said the fire gear he wore in the ad was loaned from a supporter and was not county-owned. Although he said he didn't think he was violating county policy when he made the ads, "I thought something might be said. There's no clear-cut policy that strictly forbids it."

In addition, he said he had permission from the Connell Heights Fire Volunteer Department to use the vehicles, and the paramedics in the ad were not on duty.

Russo resigned from the Connell Heights department in December so he could devote time to running for the commission. He said he wore the gear to represent his years of service.

Russo added that the county policy was being enforced inconsistently, because his rival in the race, Commissioner Gary Bartell, listed his county telephone number on campaign literature.

Bartell said the number is not on his literature but it is on his business card.