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City manager perfects familiar refrain: "I'm sorry'

Clearwater residents who tuned in Thursday's City Commission meeting must have thought they were watching a summer rerun. The commissioners were telling City Manager Mike Roberto they were disappointed with him, and he was telling them he was sorry and would do better.

The disappointments on Thursday were new, however: the discovery of yet another expensive benefit written into city employment contracts and, most shocking, the cavalier alteration of public records by two of Roberto's top administrators.

In other words, the dialogue had changed, but not the plot.

In March, the issue was a $15,000 city staff retreat at Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort. Commissioners called it a waste of money. Roberto said he was sorry and that he wouldn't do it again.

In April, Roberto told commissioners the city had a fire department funding emergency that would require an instant decision on a new tax to raise $39-million. Commissioners told him to slow down and give residents more information. Roberto said he was sorry and that he would bring the issue back next year.

In July, a week before they had to set the property tax rate, commissioners complained that Roberto had recommended a 12-percent tax increase but hadn't provided them with a city budget. Roberto said he was sorry the budget was late and that it wouldn't happen again next year.

Days later, commissioners learned from a newspaper story that Roberto has spent $2.3-million on consultant fees, including work they had not approved and an expenditure of $24,999.99, one penny under the limit for commission approval. Commissioners told Roberto he would have to change his ways. He said he was sorry and would inform the commission of expenditures in the future.

On Thursday night it was more of the same, but the stakes were raised.

The most recent hand-wringing involved more than Roberto's careless use of tax dollars and failure to inform commissioners. Without Roberto's knowledge but within the top ranks of his administration, an important public document had been secretly changed, twice.

City Attorney Pam Akin has been able to piece together this series of events:

In March, around the time the Grenelefe trip became public, Deputy City Manager Rick Hedrick told human resources administrator Paul O'Rourke to change Hedrick's employment contract, reducing 30 extra vacation days Roberto had given him in addition to the usual 10 days. Hedrick explained last week to Times staff writer Anita Kumar that he hadn't felt comfortable with the generous benefit. O'Rourke replaced one page of the contract _ reducing Hedrick's extra vacation days to 10 _ without telling anyone or following city procedures.

Not aware of the contract alteration, Roberto agreed to let Hedrick cash out 10 vacation days for about $3,000, an opportunity not given to other city employees.

Soon after that, O'Rourke restored the original page to Hedrick's contract, giving back the extra vacation days. No one knows what happened to the altered page, Akin said. Based on Hedrick's salary of $95,000, 30 vacation days are worth about $10,000 if they are cashed out rather than used.

When Akin heard about what was going on, she and Roberto investigated. Florida law makes it illegal to alter a public record.

After the story unfolded, Roberto fired Hedrick and suspended O'Rourke for five days. Roberto told commissioners all changes to employment contracts will go through Akin's office from now on. None asked why that wasn't the rule all along.

Yes, Roberto did act when faced with his administrators' irresponsible, maybe illegal, actions. But he found himself apologizing to the commissioners again for granting over-generous vacation benefits and allowing one employee a favor not available to others.

So, commissioners gave Roberto yet another chance. Conspicuous by the brevity of their comments, two commissioners _ Bob Clark and Ed Hart _ spoke with barely a hint of concern about recent events.

Where was the outrage over violation of the sanctity of public records? Where was the dismay that Roberto had embarrassed the commission once again? Where was the assurance to Clearwater residents that they could trust their government this time?

Clearwater city commissioners gambled Thursday night. On the line are their own political careers, the city's vital redevelopment effort and the public trust.

Commissioners are betting that Roberto won't have to say he is sorry again.

Looking back over the past four months, there is little to explain their confidence.