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Open mic, public airwaves

August 18, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

To the editor:

The July 18 open mic incident at the City staff's presentation rehearsal meeting on the contentious Utility Expansion Project presents some interesting observations on privacy, trust, fear and double standards.

The Cape/TV 98 audio broadcast of the "dry run" meeting, whether accidental or not, was characterized as a violation of the privacy rights of public employees and an assault on their sacred freedom to speak without fear.

The idea that the privacy of public employees was violated is ironic. In reality, the privacy rights of ordinary citizens are being eviscerated by public employees and attendant - local to national- agencies of law enforcement, justice and national security. The use of warrantless wiretaps, "stop-and-frisk" searches, phone records requests, email access, Internet tracking, license plate readers, and more are part of daily life.

What happened to the trust in the U.S. Constitution and public servants to protect the rights of its citizenry -including privacy?

It is lost that the broadcast was actually an invasion of public airwaves by public employees and not the reverse. What valid expectations of privacy exist in such a case? What if the broadcast was of an orchestrated conspiracy to "persuade" Council supporters to approve a project that would, again, do serious harm to taxpayers, homeowners, ratepayers and, ultimately, the city? Would an "accidental" public revelation be nullified by public employee claims of privacy rights violations?

The protestations of Mayor John Sullivan, Councilman Chris Chulakas-Leetz and a citizen, Ken Zeske, were zealously condemned as being taken out of context, manipulations, misrepresentations, or even outright fabrications. It suggests that they did not really hear what they heard.

City Manager John Szerlag, on the job just two months, was offended and, as expected, defended all aspects of the meeting. He interpreted the most prominent comments in the best light and vouched for his integrity and professionalism, while attributing those same standards to city staff.

Mr. Szerlag either is and, perhaps, prefers to remain oblivious of the flagrant lapses within the leadership and ranks amongst city staff indicative of a culture, or at least a long-standing practice by some, of Hear, Speak, and See no evil. Accountability appears to be non-existent, but praises plentiful.

So appreciative of the defense and protection of the city manager, all attending city staff signed Mr. Szerlag's letter, concurring with his responses on the incident. What would have happened if some did not sign? Fear of breaking ranks is real.

Councilman Marty McClain, a perennial "praise-giver" for city staff, not wanting to miss another opportunity, even asked that we give our trust, presumably just as he fervently does, to city staff since they love Cape Coral.

Councilman McClain conveniently omits his refusing to trust those that brought to Council relevant, but troubling observations regarding the growth of underfunded employee pensions and other benefits liabilities. His answer: dissolve the Financial Advisory Committee, as if volunteer citizens love the city less than city staff.

Double standards, obviously, are not a concern here in River City.

There is ample evidence across the nation that "love-of-city" and "mutual-trust" relationships between City Councils and, especially, unionized city staff have contributed greatly to the woes afflicting local municipalities. Some are collapsing today from those embraces with burdensome entanglements.

Who wouldn't love a city where quid pro quos reap great returns? Bet you won't hear those discussions broadcast on open mic. Give to staff and you shall receive. Well, the chickens are coming home!

The fallout from the open mic incident is indicative of deeper problems that remain unaddressed - and they may never be until transparency, accountability, integrity and professionalism are seen as real.

The issue of privacy rights of public employees is not and never was the issue, the interjections of editors, council members and city staff notwithstanding.

Larry Barton

Cape Coral



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