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The director of the Utah Public Employees Association says Gov. Norm Bangerter's upbraiding of public employees in response to the misuse of $3.5 million at Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center was merely an attempt to make political hay at the expense of generally honest and dedicated government workers.

"We are tired of politicians choosing to bash public employees in an effort to gain votes," Rhett Potter, UPEA executive director, said in a letter to Bangerter, which he also mailed to reporters. "Thousands of state employees carry out daily duties in an excellent and efficient manner."But Bangerter said any public employees who were offended should lighten up and not get their feelings hurt when merely reminded of their duties.

"People should not be offended by being reminded of their public trust," Bangerter said in an interview.

Bangerter, through press releases and news conferences, expressed his displeasure at last week's revelations from legislative auditors, who claim eight top Timp Mental Health officials misused $3.5 million over the past four years. Bangerter said he would mail a letter to every public employee reminding them of their responsibilities.

The governor said he'd made it clear that the Timp situation was an aberration and that the vast majority of public employees are honest and hardworking. He said Potter and the UPEA "reacted without the facts and without any desire to learn what they are."

Bangerter said he has an obligation to comment on issues of public concern, especially those that involve the operation of government.

"I think the public expects me to speak out, and I have a responsibility to speak out on those issues," Bangerter said.

But Potter said the governor was simply seizing an opportunity to use the public employee as a political whipping boy.

"Your comments appear to be political rhetoric aimed at garnering support for your re-election," Potter charged.

Potter also claimed in his letter that the problems at Timp were in part due to its status as a "privatized" program operating under the direction of an appointed board of directors.

"This structure points out the message we have been trying to convey that privatizing public services is not cost effective," Potter said. "It is not in the best interest of the citizens, and it is frequently a method of lining pockets of friends and families of private entrepreneurs and/or elected officials."