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PUBLIC WORK, PRIVATE GAIN A BAD MATCH

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala acted appropriately earlier this month to fire a county employee who held another job that conflicted with her county position, and now he plans to determine whether anyone else on his staff has a similar conflict. County employees should focus on their public work, not their private sidelines.

Nicole Elko, the county's coastal coordinator since 2002, had received outstanding reviews. Her primary task was to seek money for beach renourishment projects and oversee them. Two years ago, she created her own business, Elko Coastal Consulting. As required by county policy, Elko asked for approval from her supervisor, Will Davis, director of the county's environmental management department. Davis approved her consulting work on the condition that she would accept only jobs outside Florida and only jobs that did not compete with Pinellas County for funding. The county human resources department also signed off on her consulting work.

But twice since then, Elko failed to abide by those constraints. A community association in Lee County, in southwest Florida, hired her for advice on how to restore the beach at an island property it owns. Lee County later applied for millions in beach restoration funds for the island restoration project - the same pot of money Pinellas County was trying to tap to renourish several Pinellas beaches.

Late last year Elko also sought a private consulting job with South Padre Island, Texas, which wanted help getting federal funding for beach restoration. At the same time, Pinellas County's Washington lobbyist was seeking federal funds for beach projects in Pinellas. Elko was either blind to the potential conflict or didn't care. Fortunately, she didn't get the job.

Davis, Elko's county supervisor, defended her when contacted by a St. Petersburg Times reporter examining Elko's outside employment. But as soon as County Administrator LaSala heard about the arrangement with Elko - an arrangement that preceded his hiring as administrator - he ordered her fired for violating the agreement.

Now LaSala is creating new ground rules. Only on rare occasions should any county employee be approved for outside consulting work, he said, because their focus should be on their public job. And in the future, he will approve such arrangements. Good. Pinellas should not be essentially competing against itself for state and federal money.

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