Punishment was too light by BOCC

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has decided not to adhere to a Grand Jury recommendation that its top two administrators be terminated following the iPhone/iPad scandal. The vote was four to one not to terminate Gastesi, with Commissioner Kim Wigington the lone dissenter.

The board’s reasoning was apparently that since the miscues of the two didn’t rise to the level of criminal charges for the grand jury, some sort of alternative punishment would be acceptable.

For County Administrator Roman Gastesi, one of only two county employees that actually works for the BOCC, the other being County Attorney Suzanne Hutton, that meant a letter of reprimand in the personnel file and acceptance of an offer by Gastesi to personally pay for an internal investigation by outside investigators to review what if any county policies may have been violated by other county staffers who purchased hot iPhones and iPads from former Technical Services Director Lisa Druckemiller. Those investigators are also expected to recommend what, if any, punitive action should be taken by the BOCC against those employees who availed themselves of stolen electronics bought by county money.

Druckemiller was indicted by the Grand Jury on criminal charges.

Everyone on the county staff except Gastesi and Hutton work for the administrator under a series of managers.

And it would be the administrator who would normally be expected to dole out punishments.

In this case, since the administrator was guilty of the same lapses “in judgment” as he defined them, it would be senseless to allow the top man to review and mete out punishments.

So it’s only fair that the county accept Gastesi’s offer to pay for the costs of the investigation and not put that burden on the taxpayers, who have already lost nearly $30,000 in goods from the theft.

Some consider it a magnanimous gesture on his part. We consider it the least he could do.

We have to agree with the Grand Jury’s assessment that several county staffers practiced some acts of willful blindness by purchasing, in cash, state-of-the-art consumer electronics from someone whose job it was to purchase those items for the county.

A definite lapse in judgment at least.

But we also have to say that the BOCC didn’t go far enough with Gastesi and in so doing may have tied the hands of the private team to recommend punishments.

The question of whether the offenses merited termination is moot since it didn’t happen.

Rather, we would have liked the commission to deliver a much stronger message.

Gastesi was the man at the top. The buck stops with him. He is responsible for what happens on his watch. This happened on his watch.

We feel as though a suspension, without pay, for two or three months would have sent a stronger message and would have given the private investigation team more latitude in doling out more than letters of reprimand to the staffers who also took advantage of the “great deals” offered by Druckemiller.

For that is now, we feel, the strongest punishment that can be handed down without justifiable cries of foul play from the staffers being reviewed.

If the top guy gets a slap and an admonishment not to do it again, then how can the BOCC look at their collective selves in the mirror and do more than that to other staffers involved in the scandal?

And this also sets a precedent for future violations of property policies. The commission has now limited the type of punitive action that can be taken in similar circumstances in the future.

We fully expect Gastesi to recommend that the county get out of the business of supplying pricey consumer electronics for staffers who need them to do their jobs and instead implement a stipend program where the county pays only for the service charges incurred as part of the job and a pro-rated share of the cost of the item since it can then be used for personal communications as well.

And that is at is must be now.

But there is one deeper issue here. Today’s mobile communications devices can be set up to access multiple email accounts, multiple browsers.

No longer will the county be able to ban certain websites from use using county-issued equipment since the equipment will be privately owned. And no longer will the employees have to monitor communications for fear they will come to light under Florida’s board public record disclosure policies because the mobile devices will send and receive from a private email as easily as a municipal email. And private emails are more rigidly protected by freedom of speech laws.

Such are the dangers of a too lax punishment.

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