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County officials to keep tickets

Hillsborough commissioners will keep their free luxury box tickets to Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

A proposal by Commissioner Kathy Castor that would have prohibited board members from taking such pricey freebies died Thursday for lack of interest.

Castor wanted to prohibit commissioners from accepting gifts valued at more than $100 from citizens or groups with business before the county.

Other board members said they regard them as no different than campaign contributions, which are limited to $500 per person or business. And they said the average person doesn't make any distinction either.

"Shakespeare once said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," said Commissioner Ronda Storms, who emphasized that she doesn't accept free Bucs tickets anyway.

"I think we need to be intellectually honest here. One hundred dollars is a hundred dollars, whether it's a gift or a campaign contribution," she said.

Newly elected Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he has been invited sometimes to more than a dozen events in a day, some of which involve complimentary tickets. He wouldn't be able to afford to attend some of them if he had to pay for everything, even though they provide a valuable opportunity to interact with constituents.

"I can't quote Shakespeare, but I can quote my wife," Sharpe said. "And my wife is very clear about our budget."

Castor's proposal comes after the St. Petersburg Times ran a series of stories detailing how Tampa Sports Authority members dole out free luxury box tickets for Bucs games at Raymond James Stadium to themselves and other public officials.

The tickets are valued at $457 each. In the past two years Commissioner Ken Hagan has gotten 11 tickets, worth roughly $4,385. Commissioner Tom Scott has accepted four tickets. Commission Chairman Jim Norman, who sits on the Sports Authority, has taken free tickets to more than 80 games since 1994.

Norman spoke very little during the discussion, other than to admonish Castor once again for initially floating the proposal at a meeting two weeks ago without notice. Board protocol requires commissioners to place items on their agenda in advance.

Hagan said no other counties he polled have adopted gift rules as strict as what Castor was proposing, and said state ethics rules already require disclosure of gifts. Those rules prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts valued more than $100, but only if they come from lobbyists.

The Tampa Sports Authority is not technically considered a lobbyist, though its members and staff often appear before commissioners on issues that require a vote. In fact, the county has voted in the past 13 months to take over ownership of Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum from the Sports Authority to get rid of the property tax bills on both.

Castor noted that commissioners have adopted a policy that prohibits county employees from accepting gifts worth more than $100. Her proposal died when no other commissioner offered a second, which was needed to bring it to a vote.

"I don't know why it's okay for employees to live by these rules and not commissioners," Castor said afterward. "I think the board missed an opportunity to adopt a new ethics policy that's broader than the state statute, which is very weak."

During the discussion, the board's other new commissioner, Brian Blair, actually thanked Castor for turning down free tickets to the Outback Bowl college football game at Raymond James. He said it allowed him to claim two additional tickets so that he could bring his two sons to the game.

The discussion did bring one unexpected result. When it ended, Blair proposed that commissioners ask the Legislature to abolish the Sports Authority. Storms seconded the motion.

Blair noted that with the county taking ownership of Raymond James and the Times Forum, the Sports Authority has diminished responsibilities and represents a large cost to taxpayers. He specifically questioned the $185,723 salary of the authority's executive director, which he suggested was excessive.

The proposal will come back in two weeks.

Sports Authority executive director Henry Saavedra defended his salary as comparable to what others who hold similar jobs make. He said the Sports Authority has managed the county's sports facilities well.

"We have produced three outstanding Super Bowls," Saavedra said. "We built a stadium (Raymond James) still considered one of the finest in the country on time and on budget. So I'm happy to stand behind our organization."