TAMPA — A lack of interest in local government continues to plague North Tampa neighborhoods.
Each year, for example, it gets harder and harder for the University Square Civic Association to attract members. What started 30 years ago as a large group of impassioned residents has struggled at times to stay alive.
At the University of South Florida, where student government leaders hosted a candidates forum and encouraged their peers to vote in last week's city elections, only seven people showed up to the polls.
But perhaps the clearest example of civic apathy here lies in the broader numbers from the elections March 1, when ballots were cast in a contentious mayoral race and for seven City Council seats.
More than 22 percent of Tampa's registered voters went to the polls last week. But in District 7 — the area that encompasses New Tampa, Forest Hills, Terrace Park and the university community — 14 percent showed up, making it the lowest voter turnout in the city.
In 2007 it was even lower, with less than 10 percent of voters.
But when it comes to finding solutions, residents and experts say answers aren't easy to come by. Part of the reason may lie in the area's diversity. Stretching from Busch Boulevard to the Pasco County line, District 7 is a mixture of gated communities, middle-class subdivisions and low-income neighborhoods.
Transient people such as students, those living in apartments and professionals who move from job to job are what account for the low voter turnout, said J. Edwin Benton, a political professor at USF and a New Tampa resident.
"Students may be registered to vote in the area, but they don't really identify with the city," Benton said. "Apartment dwellers come and go."
As for the well-educated, white-collar professionals that often fit the demographic of typical voters, many don't vote because they never become invested in the city before moving, Benton said.
Another issue affecting some neighborhoods is complacency.
Communities without problems tend to be less likely to get involved with government, Benton said.
"As long as the water keeps flowing and the garbage keeps getting picked up and you don't see bad elements in your neighborhood, then the local government is not relevant for you," he said.
District 7 fared worst citywide overall, but a look at the turnout in each precinct shows a wide range of involvement.
For instance, only about 13 percent of registered voters went to precincts in the University Square area.
Jim Wujek, president of the civic association, thinks that may be because his neighborhood hasn't experienced the level of crime that some other communities have.
"People tend to respond to problems, and we have had a lot of improvements in our area over the last year," Wujek said.
Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green in New Tampa aren't known for crime either. Yet in those areas, some precincts reported turnouts as high as 21 percent.
Maggie Wilson, a Tampa Palms activist, has a theory for the participation: Residents in her area are more opinionated about how they think Tampa should be run.
"We spend a lot of time thinking about the city," said Wilson, a consultant for her area's community development district. "And many leaders in Tampa Palms have gone to extra lengths to put themselves in city positions."
With more than 27 percent of registered voters going to the polls, Forest Hills is another community that stands out.
"People who live in this particular area have owned these houses for an extremely long time," said Debra McCormack, president of the neighborhood's civic association. "This is not a high turnover area."
Benton, the USF professor, agrees that longtime residents are more likely to vote.
"The more stable the area, the greater the voter turnout is going to be," he said. The residents are more invested in the future of their community, so they vote, he said.
Now community leaders look forward to the runoff election March 22, when voters will decide the city's next mayor and four City Council seats. What should the city expect from voters in these parts?
"Voting in District 7 may be even lighter than it was before," Benton said, "unless the candidates can somehow light a fire under the voters."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.