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Commissioner forces a look at gifts rule

Fellow board members silenced Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor three weeks ago when she wanted to rid them of their habit of accepting lavish gifts like free skybox tickets at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

"Out of order!" some declared. Others sat mute. Castor's motion, which wasn't on the official agenda of that day's meeting, died.

"That was unfortunate," Castor now says.

That was also last year. In their first 2005 meeting on Thursday, commissioners will be forced to finally discuss freebies _ thanks to Castor's resolve to place the topic on the official agenda.

Agenda Item F-1 would prohibit commissioners from accepting gifts or other items of more than $100 value, a rule that already applies to other county employees. If commissioners pass it, the rule would also match a similar gift ban approved by the city of Tampa last year.

Castor's motion follows a series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times last month detailing the free skybox tickets at Raymond James Stadium, valued at more than $450 each, that members of the Tampa Sports Authority receive and hand out to elected officials. Many of those officials, including county and city officials, oversee the authority's budget.

"Accepting these gifts creates a clear conflict of interest or at least the appearance of impropriety," said Castor, who said she got more than 50 complaints after the stories appeared in the Times. "I want it to be simple, so there's no confusion: Commissioners can't accept anything over $100."

Such a rule would certainly change the game day habits of three commissioners.

In two years, Ken Hagan has gotten 11 tickets to six games. Not including a game he didn't attend, that's about a $4,385 value. Tom Scott accepted four tickets. Jim Norman, who sits on the authority board, has attended about 80 free games since 1994.

Hagan, Norman and Scott say the tickets don't sway their votes or violate Florida's ethics law.

Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Brian Blair were elected to the board in November. Records don't show that Ronda Storms accepted any tickets.

Castor is confident that she can get more than just a majority to approve her motion.

"I'm hopeful that it will pass unanimously," she said. "This is a new statement the board can make for the New Year."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com.

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