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Leaders ask for Internet policy

County commissioners on Tuesday asked their attorney to draft a policy that would limit their use of public computers for personal interests, but first came complaints that such a policy would present its own problems and be difficult to follow.

"We got to have some protection, some policy or structure," Commissioner Steve Simon said as he presided over the board's public meeting at the West Pasco Government Center. "But how do you substantiate what the site actually was" when it is reviewed later, he asked.

The conversation was the first public debate over the use of public computers by commissioners since the St. Petersburg Times reported Sunday that three commissioners conducted personal business on the Internet during public hearings.

Commissioner Ted Schrader frequently checked stock quotes and made travel plans. Commissioner Pat Mulieri logged onto her e-mail account to answer messages related to her other job as a professor emeritus at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Simon checked eBay and golf-related sites.

Simon and Schrader have said they regretted the use, but Simon and Mulieri complained during Tuesday's meeting that they now feel forced to not only eliminate personal Web surfing but legitimate research as well.

Simon, who has cut his use of any Web pages from his work laptop until a policy is finalized, said he was afraid to even look down to sign papers out of concern that the Times would report that he wasn't paying attention.

"I shouldn't be afraid to do my job," he said.

Mulieri addressed the television cameras to tell the public that she would be shutting down her America Online e-mail account, which she used to respond to students, friends and constituents, because the Times reported that she conducted the correspondence as the public, officials or staffers addressed her from the lectern.

"Big Brother is watching you, so don't go on the Internet," Mulieri told her fellow commissioners, adding that the public can now reach her through her county-supplied e-mail address.

Schrader, the most frequent Web surfer, remained silent during the conversation but joined all fellow commissioners in a request for the county attorney to draft a policy for the board's use of the Internet. They did not tell him what provisions to include, but it will be taken up at a future meeting for approval.

In other county news Tuesday:

Commissioners responded to the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed $2-million fine for extensive failures to properly dispose wastewater from the county-run system.

The county continued its effort to reduce the fine before it is finalized, but Simon said he wanted to go on public record that the county was addressing the department's complaints.

Chief among his concerns, Simon said, was the lack of communication among county staffers that led to a large and extended sewage spill in a Zephyrhills community and the DEP's finding that the county had quietly constructed a valve to improperly release wastewater into a tributary of the Hillsborough River.

"This board does not condone any building of any secret piping, or any circuitous valve," Simon said.

Utility director Bruce Kennedy, who is in DEP records as the county official who authorized the pipe's use, told commissioners that the charge was untrue and that the pipe was constructed and used by a county contractor.

"I support Bruce Kennedy," Mulieri said.

Also, Port Richey defeated a proposal to build a boat and RV storage facility next to City Hall on Ridge Road. The city argued that it was an improper use of land that also is adjacent to a bank and an apartment building. County Commissioners agreed by a 4-1 vote.

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