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How sweet: Freeloading gets a big thumbs-up

Well, good news! You'll be greatly relieved to hear it.

You will still be able to give gifts worth more than $100 to members of the Hillsborough County Commission.

I know, I know. For a while there, it was touch and go. Our right as free Americans to shower our county commissioners with gifts of unlimited size was at risk.

Why? Because of a Dec. 12 article in this newspaper. It pointed out that some of the commissioners, along with other local pols and the membership of the Tampa Sports Authority, annually receive thousands of dollars worth of free tickets, food and drinks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

It would be hard to improve on the opening of that article, written by our reporter Bill Varian:

They settled into padded chairs, as they do for every home game, to witness the action from one of the stadium's 196 luxury suites. They dined on beef tenderloin, grilled chicken breast sandwiches and key lime pie, and washed it down with Heineken beer, Dasani spring water and Absolut vodka.

And they didn't pay a dime.

Varian reported that one of the members of the Sports Authority actually attended more football games this season than meetings of the authority. Supposedly, of course, the tickets are a small repayment for the great sacrifice they are making to "serve" their community.

Meanwhile, three members of the County Commission (Jim Norman, Thomas Scott and Ken Hagan) also were on the receiving end of the good stuff. Norman, who represents the commission on the Sports Authority, leads the pack by far, having attended about 80 Bucs games over the past decade.

Two commissioners, Ronda Storms and Kathy Castor, took no tickets. Two others, Brian Blair and Mark Sharpe, are newcomers, although Blair said the other day he intends to accept them with enthusiasm.

All of this is perfectly legal under the Wild West ethics laws of Florida. It also is common practice in taxpayer-funded skyboxes across the nation. Everybody does it.

Nevertheless . . .


The County Commission has one job, and that is to govern Hillsborough County fairly and wisely. Its members have no business running around with their hands out, taking freebies that are worth hundreds of dollars a pop under any circumstance, from any entity, public or private. Especially Jim Norman, who is always grousing about having to help pay for health care for all those icky poor people.

Sorry to be such a party pooper. But that is the nature of government. If you want to take goodies, go into a different line of work.

After this bad publicity, one of the non-football-going commissioners, Castor, tried to get the commission to adopt a $100 limit on gifts.

Well, you would have thought Castor was proposing that each commissioner whack off an arm. Norman and Scott shouted Castor down as out of order when she first tried it in December. She tried again and got her idea back on the agenda.

"I'm hopeful that it will pass unanimously," Castor said, with an optimism that seems, in retrospect, rather touching. "This is a new statement the board can make for the new year."

The board made a statement, all right.

When Castor's proposal came up this past Thursday, it simply died for lack of a second. The rest of the commissioners harrumphed and rationalized.

They reckoned that since they can take campaign contributions of as much as $500, it should be okay to take gifts, too. This makes absolutely zero sense, of course. And new Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he was worried about having to pay personally for all the appearances and events to which a commissioner gets invited.

Mark, Mark! Surely some distinction can be made between eating the rubber chicken at a legitimate public appearance, and gorging yourself in a skybox orgy on a $500 spree. Is this really why you spent all those years trying to get elected _ for the freebies? You've been there what, a few weeks, and you're already in the club?

Another proud moment in Hooterville.