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"Old World charm' led to praise, official says

City Commissioner Charlie Harper, whom the city has investigated for allegedly making inappropriate remarks, said he often takes employees out to eat and compliments them.

"That's just the way I am," he said, attributing his behavior to "Old World charm."

Harper, 60, acknowledges that such behavior might no longer jibe with "modern day life," especially after the investigation. Harper last week said the city looked into rumors that he made offensive remarks to one or more city employees but found he did nothing wrong.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," said Harper. "If I did, much more would come of it."

Largo officials declined to say anything about the matter, but city management took steps on Dec. 28 indicating City Clerk Diane Bruner could be somehow involved. Harper and the five other candidates in the upcoming election were directed to bring their election business to another official instead of Bruner.

City officials say they are barred from commenting by a statute that protects alleged victims of employment discrimination, which includes sexual harassment as well as age and gender discrimination. City Attorney Alan Zimmet denied two public records requests made by the St. Petersburg Times, stating that "those records are to be kept confidential upon the request of the alleged victim who has not filed a complaint."

Bruner declined to comment.

Several women who have worked with Harper on city business said last week that Harper has always conducted himself professionally.

But former City Commissioner Mary Laurance-Burch said she thought it was "questionable" when Harper called her once at her home while he was on vacation.

The incident took place in 2000, before Harper, then chairman of the Finance Advisory Board, announced he was running against Laurance-Burch for commissioner.

"I was single at the time," Laurance-Burch said. "He made a personal call to me."

Harper never mentioned that he was married, she added. "I thought it was real odd."

That same year, she said, Harper offered to take her out to dinner with Brenda Butler, who served on the finance advisory board and was single at the time.

"I said no," Laurance-Burch said, adding that "some people are very friendly, outgoing. It was never anything sexual."

Butler could not be reached for comment.

Harper said the proposed dinner was business-related, as Laurance-Burch had asked him to make a recommendation on the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce's request for money for postage.

Harper said he didn't remember the phone call Laurance-Burch described.

Marketing specialist Heather Graves said Harper took her and three other employees out to lunch at E & E Stakeout Grill in Belleair Bluffs in November or December. Harper has "been very professional," Graves said.

"I found him to be very much a gentleman," said former Largo marketing manager Karen Barth. "Like my husband, (he) would let a lady go through a doorway first."

Gigi Arntzen, Harper's former campaign manager, said Harper compliments her at times, saying "You look nice today" or "I like the jacket you have on."

"It's always been a friendly manner," she said.

"I do compliment people," Harper acknowledged. "I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. I'll probably never get over that."

As a new commissioner in 2002, Harper proposed a human rights ordinance that would ban discrimination against minorities and gays. He was upset that a 2002 fair housing study found widespread discrimination in rental housing in Largo.

But Harper later voted against the proposed ordinance.

After the ordinance was defeated, other commissioners _ including Harper _ supported beefing up the city's internal harassment and discrimination prohibition policy, which took effect in October 2003.

"Charlie Harper knows all about discrimination," he said, adding that his wife, Sandy, was discriminated against in a job in 1969 or 1970.

He also acknowledged that his female boss at Progress Energy, where he is an executive, is "the best boss I ever had."

Harper has worked for Progress Energy for 34 years, said spokesman Aaron Perlut. "He is well respected among his peers and his supervisor." Perlut said Harper's employment records are private.

Progress Energy employees have had to attend diversity training, while the company holds an annual diversity celebration, he said.

Shannon Tan can be reached at shtansptimes.com or 445-4174.

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