BROOKSVILLE — In office for a little more than three years, Brooksville City Council member Kevin Hohn has decided that, because of work demands, he won't seek another term on the council in November.
Hohn's departure, which is due to his increasing work demands as national accounts manager with MedActive Oral Pharmaceuticals, leaves three council seats that voters will need to fill, and could drastically shape the future in regard to several issues — among them red-light cameras and whether the city should retain its own fire department.
The city of 7,500 residents has a history of apathy when it comes to attracting willing council candidates. In 2006 — the last time there were three open seats with no incumbents running — only four people ran for them. In 2010, when one incumbent ran and two other seats were open, there again were no challengers.
So far this year, only two candidates have qualified for the nonpartisan positions — former city attorney Robert "Butch" Battista, who two years ago lost in a "coin toss" tiebreaker with Hohn to fill the seat that had been held by Emory Pierce, and Vivian "Vi" Coogler, who has had several unsuccessful attempts at running for public office. Battista is vying for Seat 1, which is currently occupied by Joe Bernardini; Coogler is going after Seat 5, which is held by Lara Bradburn. Both incumbents are bowing out due to term limits.
One government expert says he believes candidate apathy feeds off voter apathy toward municipal positions. Because small-town elections lack the glamor of legislative, congressional and even county politics, the focus on nuts-and-bolts decisions that affect day-to-day policies tends to take a back seat in many people's minds, said J. Edwin Benton, a University of South Florida professor who focuses on local government.
Benton believes the lack of candidates — especially newcomers — tends to reflect a satisfaction among residents with the status quo.
"To some degree, it's a lack of having issues that tend get people fired up to want to seek office and do something about it," Benton said. "If the city had a lot of urgent problems or there was a general feeling that the council was incompetent, you would likely see more action."
Former City Council member Pat Brayton agreed, adding that holding a part-time council position that pays only $5,400 a year requires a lot more sacrifice than many people are willing to make.
"It's a job that can demand a lot of your time over four years," said Brayton, who served on the council from 1994 to 2000. "For someone who works or is involved in other things like their church or their kid's little league, it can be quite a load."
Joe Johnston III, who has served on the council off and on since 1993, said he has seen all types of candidates come along, including a fair number of single-issue candidates and those hoping to carry out a specific agenda. But most of the time, he said, the council is able to work through its differences amicably.
"People may come to the council with a certain perspective, but they quickly realize that it all boils down to what's best for the city," he said. Nonetheless, Johnston acknowledges that strong feelings about some issues — including the city's red-light camera program — could come into play in this year's races.
While there are pending legal questions as to when the city's contract with the camera vendor ends, the new council almost certainly will have to address concerns over the program. And by then, two of the cameras' staunchest supporters — Hohn, who is serving as mayor this year, and Bradburn — will be gone.
"The council has always been divided on that issue, with one vote deciding how it went," Johnston said. "There's no way to predict how it will go next time, but I think with three new people on the dias, you can expect a lot of debate."
City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha said that regardless of who is elected, she hopes the next council won't lose sight of the achievements of predecessors during bad economic times.
"I would hope that there is at least some regard for continuity in how the city goes forward from here," Norman-Vacha said. "I think the citizens expect their City Council to be one that has vision."