Family members are aghast at the use of the death for political purposes.
Democratic challenger Pat Hannon has set a new standard for negative advertising in the Hillsborough property appraiser's race, blaming incumbent Rob Turner for the death of a longtime employee.
In a flier handed out at a Labor Day union gathering, Hannon claims "a career civil service employee committed suicide after Turner refused to give her a lateral transfer to help relieve stress from a diagnosis of lupus and the pregnancy of her unmarried daughter."
"Turner didn't even attend the funeral," the flier says.
Hannon's accusation involves Sandra Webb, a $35,276-a-year assessment coordinator who was in her 26th year at the appraiser's office when she took her life in November 1998.
Family members say Webb, 45, suffered from medical problems that included lupus and a liver disorder, and that she was unhappy about her teenage daughter's pregnancy.
But relatives also say there is no evidence that any personnel decision by Turner played a part in Webb's suicide. Although Mrs. Webb is not mentioned by name, her family is astonished that anyone would use her death for political purposes.
"That's completely false," said Sandra Webb's husband, Ben. "It had nothing to do with Turner. Turner gave her time off."
"My wife is gone," he added. "She can't protect herself. I don't appreciate her name being dragged through the mud like this. I'm sorry there are people so low in this world that would stoop to this kind of thing."
Sandra Webb's sister, Sharon Mears, and her mother, Marcella Jones, expressed similar sentiments about Hannon's ad.
"Things were very tough on her, with her daughter and her illness," said Mears. "It's not right for anyone to use that."
Hannon, 55, is on leave from his job as a Tampa Electric Co. tax analyst. In the November general election, he will face Turner, 49, a Republican and former bank executive seeking his second term. After he was elected in 1996, Turner fired Hannon from his job as chief of the personal property department.
Asked about his claim, Hannon said: "That's a touchy one. She did commit suicide. If you read her personnel file, the events speak for themselves.
This is a person under stress in her professional life and her home life. The person is unstable. She doesn't get a transfer and she commits suicide."
Hannon said he used Webb's history in his political handout "to strengthen my point that Turner is very callous toward his employees."
Turner said Webb had asked to be transferred to the Plant City office to be closer to home, and he agreed to reassign her to the satellite office for a month "to help her out." He ruled out a permanent move since it would have required the transfer of one of the two workers already in the Plant City office.
"We took an extra step to work with her," said Turner. "It's sad that they would use this tragic event for political purposes."
In his attempt to show "Turner is not pro-labor," Hannon also said in his flier that Turner used coercion to encourage employees to contribute to his campaign, damaged office morale by awarding bonuses to those he regards as "politically valuable," ordered employees not to eat at restaurants frequented by Hannon's workers and took away office breaks.
Hannon said he's getting his information from discontented employees inside Turner's office.
"People are talking," he said. "The office is leaking like a colander."
Turner has collected more than $4,000 in contributions from employees, but said he "never asked or implied subtly" that any staffer donate to his campaign.
A bonus system was instituted to reward "employees considered best in the office," not political allies, Turner said. The 47 who qualified last year were evenly split between management and non-supervisory personnel. Hannon did not know how many of the 47 also contributed to Turner's campaign.
Turner said his staffers "used to hang out at certain West Tampa sandwich shops before the election, and they still eat there. What they do on their own time is their business."
Turner does acknowledge placing limits on office breaks.
"When I took office, employees at all levels were taking smoke breaks at all times of the day or were telling customers they couldn't help them because it was break time," Turner said. "That simply is not conducive to serving the public."
_ Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testermansptimes.com.