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Commissioners need to give undivided attention to public

Everyone gets a turn in the pickle barrel.

For a few days at least, it's Pasco County Commissioners Ted Schrader, Steve Simon and Pat Mulieri.

Times reporters Garrett Therolf and Matthew Waite revealed on Sunday that the three elected officials have been surfing the Web during commission meetings.

Commissioners surf while Pasco . . .

You fill in the blanks.

Most folks who show up at commission meetings mean business. They don't come unless they feel passionately about an issue.

Imagine, the nervous Joe Public complaining about how slow government works but being totally unaware that commissioners are sitting there quite satisfied by the speed of their Web browsers.

Commissioners owe citizens their undivided attention. We'd get better government, in fact, if both the electorate and the elected paid closer attention.

There is also a troubling double standard. County employees have been fired for using computers for nonwork-related activities. What do you suppose the rank and file were talking about around the water cooler Monday morning? It doesn't look good; it doesn't sound right.

Right now there's no policy for commissioners. One is overdue.

In Hernando County, commissioners don't have laptops at their desks during meetings. In Citrus, commissioners have Internet accessible computer stations for county business. Whatever is good for the employees is good for commissioners.

"I'm computer illiterate, so I don't even use a computer," said Citrus County Commission Chairman Gary Bartell.

With literacy must come restraint.

Before anyone accuses us of making this a Dick Cheney shooting incident there are a few lessons here that I shouldn't gloss over.

This is a reminder of just how little privacy we have left, whether as a public official or an ordinary citizen. The Internet is a double-edged sword. It is a powerful research tool, but it is also very addictive and plays on our compulsions. For some of us it's gambling; for others it's shopping or sex. Mine is world news and soccer.

All this surfing leaves footprints. And, sometimes, embarrassment.

Commissioner Schrader likes expedia.com. He loves to travel. I knew Sunday's story must have caused him some discomfort, so I called him Monday to check on the political fallout.

His constituents weren't giving him a hard time, he said, but he was clearly defensive. He sounded hurt. He said he does his homework before meetings; his Web searching takes a few minutes, not long stretches of time.

But you know what, it's a lesson learned, he said. He promised not to do it again.

Simon is the golf buff in the group. His surfing included checking golf club prices on eBay. Simon claims that he can walk and chew gum. Distracted? Not a chance. As county chairman, he's signing his name 500 times during a commission meeting and can follow what's going on.

To his credit, Simon has been a good sport. He has no choice. Folks have been poking fun at him for the past few days.

"A buddy calls up and asks, can I get him a nice driver," Simon told me on Monday.

When he went to the Fox Hollow golf course driving range on Sunday, it was obvious that others on the links had read their morning paper. Same thing happened at 8:30 a.m. Monday when he was first in line at the main post office in New Port Richey.

"Hey, there's the Internet guy."

Mulieri, the least frequent Web offender of the trio, was checking her e-mail. She's big on constituent service - very accessible. And I sure don't want her to stop responding to my e-mail inquiries. But there is a time and place.

Commission meetings are often long and drawn out - plain old boring. Paying attention can be a true test of patience. But that's the job. It's called public service.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sppimes.com.

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