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Commissioners must keep their eyes on board business

Three Pasco County commissioners are taking multitasking to a new level.

Instead of focusing on the business at hand in public meetings, Commissioner Ted Schrader is surfing the net for stock quotes, airline ticket prices or vacation information.

Pat Mulieri is checking an e-mail account or visiting the Web site for Pasco Hernando Community College, where she is a professor emeritus after retiring in spring 2005.

Steve Simon looks for golf equipment, whatever else strikes his fancy at eBay or clicks on, the home page for entertainer Steve Max, who bills himself as "the nation's leading Simon Sez caller." Does Simon say, Put your finger on the mouse and click?

The inattention to their commission duties is insulting to residents, the county staff and even other elected officials. Simon once visited eBay three minutes after a commission meeting started. Schrader used his laptop to check the stock market on the afternoon of Aug. 23, 2005, at the precise time the staff of Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger was at the podium seeking a budget increase to pay for mental health services for indigent misdemeanor defendants.

Schrader is the biggest abuser of the county-owned laptop computers, accounting for more than 9,700 page visits (86 percent) of the Internet use by commissioners, during and outside of meetings, over the past three years. His penchant for monitoring the stock market during public meetings is disturbing. He should be able to set aside interest in his portfolio for two afternoons a month to give Pasco's citizens his undivided attention.

Schrader, it must be noted, also is responsible for commissioners' spending less time in the board room. After his election in 2000, Schrader persuaded commissioners to cut their work load in half from four commission meetings each month to two. That leaves him plenty of down time to surf the Web. The public should be his exclusive focus on commission meeting days. Ditto for Simon and Mulieri.

We suspect some of the Web surfing is the electronic equivalent of doodling. But commissioners' initial explanations were problematic and reinforced a perception in some quarters that the public can't get a fair hearing.

Simon, for instance, rationalized his eBay visits as research for county purchases. To his credit, Simon later accepted responsibility for his actions. After the early denials, he acknowledged using the computer for noncounty businesses and said he would have the Web browser removed from the laptop.

Mulieri doubted the authenticity of the county's computer records, which showed her perusing an AOL e-mail account seven minutes after commissioners returned from a recess on Jan. 24. Mulieri championed the county's move to computerization in the late 1990s and suggested at the time that computer literacy was a professional prerequisite for applicants for the then-vacant county attorney's position. It is understood she uses e-mail to stay in touch with constituents, but it does not justify being distracted during public meetings.

If Mulieri believes the county software produces inaccurate results, will she ask the personnel office to refrain from using it as justification for terminating rank-and-file employees using county computers inappropriately?

Schrader initially argued that spending hours on the Internet over the past three years is insignificant and that he has fulfilled his duties as commissioner. Tell that to the people in the Aloha Utilities service area who continue to fight, after more than a decade, to get rid of dark, smelly water in their homes. Schrader surfed "probably checking flight fares" for 18 minutes on May 10, 2005, during discussion of a county ordinance to force Aloha to improve its water quality.

The public would be better served if Schrader followed the lead of Commissioners Jack Mariano and Ann Hildebrand. County records for the past three years show Mariano, who joined the board in November 2004, and Hildebrand rarely access the Internet and then only to check Web sites relevant to county business.

Their behavior should be the rule, not the exception. The public deserves a County Commission that will dedicate its undivided attention to the business of governing.