Tuesday, August 14, 2018
News Roundup

Epilogue: Curtis Law’s quiet leadership drew respect, attention on Pasco commission

Curtis Law Sr. might as well have worked at E.F. Hutton.

When he talked, people listened.

It was the commercial slogan for that stock brokerage firm in the 1970s and ‘80s, and it played out in county government when Mr. Law, a 16-year Pasco commissioner, leaned forward and spoke into the dais microphone.

"Sylvia (Young) and I were the ones who talked all the time, and Curtis never said much,’’ said Mike Wells Sr., a commissioner from 1984-92. "But when he sat up in his chair and wanted to express his opinion, everyone listened intently.’’

Mr. Law, the senior member of that commission during the high-growth era of the 1980s, died Aug. 4 after an illness of several months. He was 82.

So, why did people listen to him?

"He normally had something important to say,’’ said Wells.

Indeed. And when Mr. Law vocalized, his leadership frequently swayed the opinion of his fellow Democrats — Young and Commissioner Allan G. "Sonny’’ Safranek.

Take Pasco’s foray into mass transit, for instance. In May 1987, the three Democrats opposed a plan for an experimental bus system along U.S. 19 as too pricey. A week later, the commission resurrected a modified proposal, prompting Mr. Law to change his vote. The others, despite voicing strong objections, followed suit. After some initial hiccups, the bus system remains a staple of county-provided services three decades later.

"It’s a real loss,’’ said Wells. "There are so few men like Curtis Law.’’

A Land O’ Lakes citrus grower by profession, Mr. Law also became part of the family business of public service. His father was a Pasco County commissioner before him. Mr. Law joined the commission in 1974 when Democrats were the dominant party and growth hadn’t yet saturated the Pasco landscape.

One of the pressing and difficult political tasks ahead was writing and approving a zoning code to regulate the location of commercial and residential development. The commission also tried to soothe an east-west parochial divide by agreeing to build identical court houses in Dade City and in west Pasco.

Later, Mr. Law witnessed the revolving door at the county administrator’s office, the jailing of the commission chairman on a bribery charge and the stain of a grand jury investigation that helped usher in John Gallagher’s three-decades as county administrator beginning in 1982.

Over the next eight years, the commission tackled growth head on. It increased the gasoline tax to build roads, persuaded voters to approve bond referendums totaling $23 million to build parks and libraries, modernized the water and sewer system, and authorized the trash-to-energy incinerator in Shady Hills.

That string of work led a Times commentary writer to characterize the commission of Mr. Law, Safranek, Wells, Young and Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, as the county’s finest ever.

They certainly had political and policy disagreements, but it was a board long on congeniality. They liked each other so much, it wasn’t uncommon to see all five lunch together publicly during a commission break with journalists sitting close by to eaves-drop.

But expanded government services required expanded revenues, and the public pushed back against property tax increases. In 1986, Mr. Law handed Mike Fasano, then a 20-something conservative firebrand, his first election loss.

"A true gentleman and a class act,’’ said Fasano, now Pasco’s tax collector. "Even after he defeated me, there were no hard feelings. He did a good job for the county.’’

But four years later, voters ousted both Mr. Law and Safranek amid an anti-incumbent fervor that spread across Florida.

Gov. Lawton Chiles later appointed Mr. Law to the Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board. It lengthened his list of civic contributions that included the Blue Key Growers Co-op, Rotary Club, Little League, Police Athletic League football Land O’ Lakes Boosters and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Mostly, though, Mr. Law returned to the family’s citrus groves and puttered around on his tractor. A high school baseball player at Pasco High School, Mr. Law also reappeared at the diamond. He became a familiar figure at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Center — the same complex he helped become a reality — where he watched grandsons Max and Will play baseball.

Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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