A Hernando County Commission majority decided its to-do list did not need another item — reinventing the wheel. With little discussion Tuesday, four commissioners wisely picked the status quo over Commissioner Jim Adkins' push to investigate a remake of county government. Adkins had sought a study commission on whether Hernando County should switch to a charter form of government.
It's an idea that has been kicked around the county building for at least a dozen years. There was a 1998 commission-authorized consultant's study that was inconclusive and then a 2001 proclamation from a vocal group of gadflies known as the Good Government League who said they would collect the necessary petition signatures mandating the study commission. Neither the consultant's recommendation nor the citizens group made much progress.
Adkins resurrected the proposal as part of his successful election campaign in 2008, but has found little support among a commission dedicating its energies to more pressing matters. In 2010, the exercise is an unnecessary distraction for a county that is working to: reorganize its appointed leadership team; close a projected multimillion-dollar budget shortfall; get a decadeslong quest to dredge Hernando Beach channel back on track; assume public control of the county jail from a private vendor; build a new county courthouse; create jobs and expand the property tax base via a more diversified local economy; clean up the contaminated grounds of the former public works compound; redevelop South Brooksville and improve or expand the existing infrastructure at such locations as Elgin Boulevard and County Line Road.
Taking staff time away from such a lengthy work list to focus on a new study group simply to appease yet another vocal minority is an inefficient use of already-strained resources. It's also counterproductive to the stated reason for switching to charter government — cost savings.
More to the point, if there is a groundswell of grass-roots support for changing the form of county government, advocates have the authority to petition the commission with the signatures of 15 percent of the county's 121,000 registered voters. In the only bone tossed Adkins' way, Commissioner Jeff Stabins offered to cut the citizens' work in half, saying he would authorize the charter government study commission if supporters could collect 7.5 percent, or 9,075 signatures. There were no takers.
Hernando and a majority of Florida counties operate under statutory government in which state law determines salaries of elected officials based on population. It gives the commission the authority to raise property taxes and make other policy decisions without voters' approval. It also makes it impossible for residents to remove a commissioner from office — that task falls to the governor.
Under charter government, a governing method more common to incorporated cities, residents can govern themselves by customizing the charter to fit local needs. It can give residents the authority to recall elected officials, set their salaries and decide certain budgetary issues by popular vote.
A charter actually could expand government expense, not shrink it as some suggest, if the commission included single-member districts as well as at-large seats elected countywide, as is the case in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. That could push the commission membership from its current five to seven.
Single-member districts also can be problematic in that they encourage horse swapping among commissioners seeking pet projects for their own areas. A commission answerable to all Hernando voters is more accountable and requires a broader vision from an elected-official beyond: "What's in it for my district?''