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March 17, 2010; St. Petersburg Times | Based in Clearwater, Florida, WorkNet Pinellas fired its YouthBuild program director for training and employing young people in an unusual occupation—collecting petitions to get a candidate for the County Commission onto the ballot. Not a good move. The fired WorkNet employee justified the stimulus-funded activity as part of a “civics lesson.”

According to the press reports, the young trainees were trucked around in a white van belonging to the agency’s Pinellas Technical Education Center, showing up at a community center with this well-crafted canvassing intro: “We’re students from the Pinellas vocational center. Would you mind signing a petition to put Beverley Billiris on the ballot this year?” Unfortunately, two of the people they asked for a signature at the Gull Aire Village clubhouse in Oldsmar happened to be the ex-husband and the son of Billiris’s opponent, County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who we gather demurred from helping Billiris get on the ballot.

The WorkNet Pinellas staff involved seem to have lost their way in this incident, one might say. The now-terminated YouthBuild program director, acknowledged to the St. Petersburg Times, that upon some reflection (after getting caught), “maybe this was a bad thing.” She had assured Billiris that the activity had been approved by her supervisors, and the Times quoted WorkNet president Ed Peachey saying, “I don’t consider it to be appropriate.”

A WorkNet board member, County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, appears to have been a social acquaintance of the fired employee and offered a feeble defense of the “education of young people in civics” element of the petitioning activity.

Oddly, in today’s Times article, the woman’s firing was announced not by Peachey, but by Billiris and Latvala, the two opposing Republican candidates. Peachey, according to the Times, couldn’t be reached for comment. More than likely, he was scrambling to explain to the Department of Labor, now investigating the agency, exactly what job skills the kids got from being pulled out of their program at the Center to collect signatures for the politician.

WorkNet Pinellas appears to be an agency that has received funding from the stimulus-funded YouthBuild program at the Department of Labor, but is not an organization affiliated with the YouthBuild network. The WorkNet board is replete with politicians and political movers and shakers, so it’s no surprise to see pols trying to take advantage of their connections with the agency for political purposes.

The lessons here are obvious: (1) don’t screw around with stimulus money; (2) don’t try to slip electioneering activities into nonprofits which are prohibited legally and by virtue of their public funding from partisan campaign activity; and (3) don’t throw your staff under the bus for violations of nonprofit standards and law when you may have well signed off on it in the first place.

But we do have to take note of Commissioner Latvala’s criticism of the petitioning for her opponent: “Everybody knows that you don’t mix politics and government.” Say what?—Rick Cohen