NEW PORT RICHEY — When County Commissioner Jack Mariano met with a group of landowners and their representatives in Tampa last week to discuss a development proposal, he broke what other commissioners say is a tradition of not holding such meetings outside of county offices.
All the other commissioners had also met representatives of the proposed Central Pasco Employment Village before voting on it.
But they did so in county government offices, which they say is important for the sake of appearances.
"It's a first, as far as I know," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, the board's longest serving member, said of Mariano's out-of-county meeting. "When developers and attorneys have something to discuss, they come to talk to you prior to board meetings. I guess the difference is that Jack went down to Tampa to meet with them. I don't really see anything wrong with that, but it's just different."
At last Wednesday's board meeting that unanimously supported the 2,400-acre proposal off State Road 52 and Ehren Cutoff, Commissioner Ted Schrader criticized Mariano, saying, "I have a problem with you meeting out of the county with developers."
Mariano isn't backing down.
"In 3½ years that I've been there, I have never been told any policy thing about not being able to meet outside county premises," he told the Pasco Times on Tuesday. "I had two staff members with me who were attorneys. I didn't care where the meeting was. I just knew that Monday had to be the day because we all had to be in Tallahassee Tuesday."
Mariano said property owners invite commissioners to their sites all the time. "You tell me where you draw the line," he said.
Commissioners have no such qualms about in-county meetings.
Schrader had met Pat Gassaway, the project's engineer, and Joel Tew, its attorney, as well as one of its 18 landowners. Hildebrand had met Gassaway and Tew. So did Commissioner Michael Cox, on three occasions. Commissioner Pat Mulieri met Gassaway, Tew and planner King Helie, who represented a small part of the overall project.
But to them, where the meetings were held is important.
"In this business, it's about perception, and the perception is certainly not good," Cox said.
Mariano did nothing illegal, according to assistant county attorney David Goldstein.
On Feb. 21, the Local Planning Agency — comprising the commissioners plus School Board Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey — reviewed the proposal. Mariano, Mulieri and Hildebrand voted for it; Schrader, who wanted the applicants to cut the project's residential density, voted against it. Starkey and Cox were absent.
On Feb. 25, Mariano accompanied three staff members to Gassaway's office in Tampa for the meeting.
On Feb. 27, after winning some concessions on residential density from the landowners, the County Commission unanimously supported sending the proposal to the state Department of Community Affairs. The department has the final say on such issues.
Schrader said Mariano should have raised concerns, if any, at the Local Planning Agency.
"When you have a group of property owners, it's a little troubling to me when a commissioner goes to meet with them, especially outside the confines of the government center," said Schrader. "It's just the perception. ... I think Commissioner Mariano had really good intentions to meet with them. It sounds like he had similar concerns on residential density. The question I had was: Why didn't you bring it up at the LPA?"
But it's not unusual for an LPA member to support a project even as commissioners or their staff urge more concessions from developers. Mulieri said she, too, had worried about the project's residential density, but voted to support it at the LPA.
"I guess maybe Jack putting himself in the middle of it gives the supposition that he had the board's support," Mulieri said. "I don't think he did it maliciously. I think he was trying to be helpful. I don't think it's illegal. But I think it is appearances."
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)909-4613.