Several fresh faces at the Pinellas County Commission meetings face multiple challenges. While they are grappling with declining revenues and other policy issues, they also must restore public confidence in county government.
The two newly elected commissioners, Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock, have held elective office previously — Brickfield on the Safety Harbor City Commission and Bostock on the School Board. The value of experience was apparent at their first meeting last month, when neither seemed intimidated by the complexity of the work confronting them. Bostock showed particular assertiveness about asking questions and pushing for details.
Pinellas also has a new county administrator, Bob LaSala. He was Pinellas' chief assistant county administrator during the 1980s. He comes to the top job after gaining almost 20 years of valuable experience in other counties and cities, and finds a different county than the one he left.
Budget issues necessarily top the list of priorities for LaSala and the seven county commissioners. Local governments already have cut costs, but they will face the toughest cuts in 2009 as tax revenues continue to shrivel. Yet residents still want government to deliver services, maintain the quality of life in their communities and lend a hand in a time of trouble. Is the solution to raise more revenue by implementing new fees or taxes? Is there an innovative and affordable way to stimulate the local economy and provide job opportunities in Pinellas, where unemployment is rising? Should the county consider spending more of its reserves on programs to help people who are hurting? Should it accelerate its schedule of Penny for Pinellas projects to focus on work that can boost the local economy?
County officials can advance the public's understanding of the spending issues and other priorities with more transparency. The prior commission's decision to quietly purchase former Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private, flood-prone home site for top dollar led to a grand jury investigation and the departure of the county attorney and county administrator. The public saw it as commissioners doing a favor in a secretive way for a fellow political insider. Only complete transparency can overcome the public's distrust.
The County Commission's environmental record needs polishing as well. Whether it was proposing construction of restaurants in county parks, trying to build ballfields in a nature preserve, or attempting to draw underground water from an environmentally delicate area to irrigate private golf courses, the county government is perceived as out of step with a growing environmental consciousness among Pinellas residents. They will be waiting to see what kind of environmental leadership Brickfield, Bostock and LaSala will provide.
Change in any organization brings fresh perspectives, new ideas and a measure of uncertainty. Pinellas County government has some new hands on the tiller, and there is some rough water ahead.