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Debate on city's future should be exhaustive

Two years ago, Port Richey voters weighed in on a straw ballot to dissolve the city government. They did so again Tuesday in the form of a solitary council race, and maintaining City Hall again proved to be the winner.

The decisive 2-1 margin of victory by Bill Colombo over Amy K. Scott indicates voters who make the effort to cast ballots want Port Richey to remain as their local government. Dissolving the city — Scott favored it, Colombo did not — was the only significant difference between two competent professionals making their first runs for public office. Turnout was 31.5 percent, triple the combined participation in four municipal elections Tuesday, but down from the nearly 44 percent of just two years ago.

Turnout isn't the only thing losing traction. Support for dissolving Port Richey is dwindling, at least among active voters. Two years go, 377 people, or 45 percent of the turnout, said ''yes'' to a purposely confusing question of whether the city should spend up to $250,000 to research dissolution. Critics complained legitimately that including the dollar figure skewed the results.

Last year, candidates Phil Abts and Perry Bean, who advocated allowing voters to be heard again, each drew 344 votes to oust a pair of entrenched council members.

Tuesday, however, Scott's vote total was 201. That is fewer than the number of people who signed a petition earlier this year asking for yet another referendum. That ballot issue is proceeding, though it faces a legal challenge and no election date has been scheduled.

In the nonpartisan race, Colombo drew support from various political factions that had been at odds previously. Who would have thought past council members Jim Priest, Dale Massad and Phyllis Grae would agree on something? But all advocate maintaining the city government.

"I felt very outnumbered,'' Scott said Wednesday.

Scott, however, shouldn't be deterred from seeking an unbiased referendum on whether Port Richey should retain a municipal government, or simply be governed as part of unincorporated Pasco County. Colombo, too, as the elected officeholder should let the public vote on the ballot question even if there is a presumption of failure.

Clearly, the results two years ago can be discounted by council bias in drafting the ballot language. This issue of disbanding the city of 3,200 people will not go away until the referendum is asked in a meaningful, objective manner.

For far too long, Port Richey Council members governed by a who-you-know rather than what's-best-for-the-city mentality. If it indeed has turned a corner as Priest and Grae maintain, then there should be no objection to ensuring a majority of registered city voters agree with them.

Still, the referendum cannot be held in a vacuum. The council has an obligation to answer public questions and provide accurate information on the city's financial obligations and assets, staffing, public safety response times, the fate of proposed redevelopment projects, tax rates and other considerations. It should not, as a former city attorney advocated, refrain from asking Pasco County to participate in these discussions.

Let the voters be informed. An ignorant electorate is no way to validate perceptions of city progress.

Debate on city's future should be exhaustive 04/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 8:43pm]
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