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Let's not confuse Hughes' actions with moral courage

They have a funny definition of moral courage in Hillsborough County.

Except a number of pols in Pasco County aren't laughing, particularly because the guy who skewed the definition wants their vote in two years.

In case you missed it, the other day the Hillsborough County Commission renamed its moral courage award in honor of the late businessman Ralph Hughes who happened to be heavily involved in conservative Republican causes and gained notoriety for his antitax, anti-impact fee, antigovernment stands.

The proposal to rename the award, presented to a citizen who fights the proverbial battle against city hall, came from Commissioner Jim Norman.

Norman, by the way, already is campaigning for the District 12 state Senate seat held by Victor Crist, who must leave the Senate in 2010 because of term limits. That makes this award relevant to us because District 12 stretches eastward from the intersection of Little and Ridge roads to include the rest of Pasco County outside of Zephyrhills and part of Wesley Chapel.

And Hughes, though his efforts focused in Hillsborough, wasn't an unknown entity in Pasco political circles. He was the guy suspected of bankrolling an attempt to sabotage the 2004 Penny for Pasco sales tax campaign via an illegal mailing from an unregistered political action committee.

Unfortunately, the Florida Elections Committee closed the case against Wesley Chapel resident Larry Toll, human resources director for Hughes' Cast-Crete Corp. of Tampa, in 2005, saying it didn't have evidence to substantiate the allegations. It should be noted that the commission said it lacked evidence because Hughes ignored the commission's subpoena for postal records.

So, bending the rules and ignoring attempts at government enforcement demonstrates moral courage? Not to me. It illustrates arrogance and a belief that you are above the law.

It's safe to say the Ralph Hughes Moral Courage Award is drawing cynical catcalls among the people who worked for more than a year to build consensus and win voter approval of a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to build new schools, improve roads, preserve environmentally sensitive land and buy public safety equipment.

"It just made me shake my head,'' said Jennifer Seney, the environmental activist from Quail Hollow who filed the elections complaint against Toll. "In today's times, it's just unfortunate that we ignore reality and truth.''

''Our experiences with Ralph Hughes were nothing but negative,'' said Ray Gadd, the assistant school superintendent who acted as the district's point person on the campaign. "I was flabbergasted when I saw they were naming it after him.''

"They (Hughes and Toll) were more concerned about their financial interests in selling building supplies than in our overwhelmed and congested roads and the equivalent of nine schools trying to survive in portables,'' said Allen Altman, the chief advocate for the sales tax increase who was later elected to the Pasco School Board.

Norman, as you might expect, disagrees with these assessments and said Hughes championed less taxes and smaller government, not personal financial gain.

"I'm not endorsing everything Mr. Hughes did,'' said Norman, ''but he was somebody who challenged government.''

Yes, but as Norman campaigns over the next two years for a state Senate seat, I hope he doesn't duck accountability for this position.

Let him stand amid the road congestion at Interstate 75 and County Road 54 and tell voters it took moral courage to try to kill the funding plan to accelerate the planned transportation improvements there.

Let him point to the wilderness protected by the Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program and say it took moral courage to try to stop the money to keep the property in its pristine condition.

Or, go to Oakstead Elementary School and tell parents, if you hate these portable classrooms now, imagine if this whole school hadn't been built. It took moral courage to try to keep your kids crammed into overcapacity schools.

Maybe even ask Pasco Sheriff Bob White how he'd like to try to enforce the law without the patrol cruisers and laptop computers purchased with Penny for Pasco.

Finally, ask Pasco taxpayers if they'd like to be paying higher property taxes since the sales tax increase was accompanied by a 10-year reduction in the local school property tax rate.

Moral courage, indeed. Moral courage is the trait Altman displayed, putting up with character assassinations from Hughes' allies in the local Republican Party for simply trying to improve the quality of life in Pasco County.

Hughes' Cast-Crete did make one legitimate campaign contribution in a local race in the 2006 election cycle. It donated $500 to unsuccessful School Board candidate Cathti Compton.

She lost an open School Board seat. The winner was Altman, proving that Pasco voters recognize moral courage goes beyond getting your name on a plaque.

C.T. Bowen can be reached at bowen@sptimes.com or at (727) 869-6239.

Let's not confuse Hughes' actions with moral courage 09/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:26pm]

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