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Pinellas County Commission often out of touch with residents

In 1999, Pinellas County residents who wanted a more responsive and accountable County Commission voted to expand the commission from five members to seven and elect four commissioners from districts rather than countywide. Ten years later, has the change had the desired result? Is the Pinellas County Commission more responsive, more accountable and better connected to the public it is supposed to serve?

Based on comments in letters, e-mails and blog postings, many residents apparently would argue that it is not — that there is a growing gulf between the commission and the public. Their comments are colored by disappointment or a "throw the bums out" bitterness.

Review the past several years and it is easy to see that commissioners' comments and actions have at times seemed out of touch, politically tone deaf or a grating departure from the voters' expectations.

The County Commission's decision in 2007 to buy unneeded property from then-Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith at an inflated price was the most serious affront to that expectation. Residents were outraged, not just by the ill-advised purchase, but that commissioners acted in a shady way — on a quick voice vote with no discussion and without mentioning that it was the property appraiser's land.

Commissioners were apologetic, but less than a year later they cast a similarly quick vote to sell the 240-acre Toytown landfill property to a private developer for $10, without fully informing residents or letting the public comment. To observers, it was an indication the commission hadn't learned that the public expects more accountability and transparency.

Over and over again the commission has run afoul of the growing environmental consciousness in overbuilt Pinellas County. Witness the massive public backlash in 2006 when county officials proposed allowing beer sales and a 225-seat restaurant in one of the county's most treasured natural areas, Fort De Soto Park. But that tidal wave of criticism from environmentalists and park lovers didn't stop them from later considering a proposal to provide irrigation water to two private golf courses by pumping it from another treasured natural area, the Brooker Creek Preserve.

The county assembled more than 8,000 acres in northeast Pinellas for the Brooker Creek Preserve and pledged to save it from development forever. The public clearly shared that vision, reacting strongly against construction of ballfields or anything else on preserve property.

Yet in recent months, the County Commission voted to allow construction of above-ground pipes, well pumps, water treatment plants, water storage tanks, reservoirs and associated roads and parking lots on wide swaths of the Brooker Creek Preserve. Then commissioners went even further, voting to change countywide rules as well, which opens the door to letting other preserves in Pinellas be used for construction of such things.

Some would call that stubbornness. Others would call it arrogance. Commissioners have and would defend their actions and say they are doing what is in the best interest of the public — sort of like the parent who says to the child, "I know what's good for you."

When I first started covering Pinellas County government in the mid 1980s, the County Commission had five members, and some were seldom seen except at commission meetings and during election campaigns. County business was routinely conducted behind closed doors. Commissioners were notoriously uninterested in responding to residents, and there was little discussion before unanimous votes at commission meetings. County residents saw the commission as detached and oblivious to their concerns. Dissatisfaction grew over time, until the successful 1999 vote to enlarge the commission and add single-member districts.

Improvement followed, not just because the number of seats and the method of election changed, but because the people and politics changed. The commission became more diverse and its business more open. Technology — specifically, televised meetings and online access to documents — helped more people get informed. E-mail allowed them to deposit their opinions right in front of commissioners.

It is unreasonable to expect commissioners to put up a finger and test the political winds before every vote. That would not be good government. Yet Pinellas residents clearly want a commission that is connected to them, accepts their vision of the future, and thinks of governing as a task shared by officialdom and the public. The question is, is that the commission they've got?

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Pinellas County Commission often out of touch with residents 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 10:34am]
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