There is a lengthy and well-documented to-do list for New Port Richey City Council, which is gaining an old-hand, former council member Bill Phillips, and retaining four-year incumbent Judy DeBella Thomas as a result of Tuesday's municipal election.
Most of the difficult tasks are familiar: redeveloping Community Hospital; completing an agreement to restore the former Hacienda Hotel; luring private-sector interest in the former First Baptist Church property at Orange Lake; aiding the completion of Main Street Landings; and balancing a city budget that is stressed by falling property values and a general fund that is subsidizing its debt-laden Community Redevelopment Agency.
But the chore list just got a longer. As evidenced by the paltry voter turn-out Tuesday, New Port Richey City Council needs to re-engage its citizenry. More than 94 percent of the electorate didn't bother to cast ballots in the three-person race to fill two council seats. By contrast, Dade City, with two commission seats also up for grabs, had a turnout percentage nearly three times as high as New Port Richey.
The apathy is an embarrassing reflection on the city as a whole. DeBella Thomas characterized her 49-vote re-election margin as an affirmation of voters' satisfaction with her performance. Her logic, however, fails to acknowledge her vote total has fallen each year she has been on the ballot. DeBella Thomas, the only candidate to receive a campaign contribution from a political party (Republican) in the nonpartisan election, received just 288 votes Tuesday, a nearly 30 percent decline from her first-time candidacy in 2008.
The problem here is not the candidate. It is the electorate. The 525 voters who cast ballots in Tuesday's election represent just half of the 2008 turnout and the total is off by nearly two-thirds from 2004 when more than 1,400 people voted.
Certainly the April election date diminishes turnout in each of Pasco's municipalities, but New Port Richey also is handicapped by: inactive public interest groups that don't schedule candidate forums; a status quo downtown redevelopment agenda that has lingered for years; the long-running Chasco Fiesta that distracts attention from the city campaigns, and, most importantly, a large transient population of renters who do not feel vested in city affairs.
Both Phillips and DeBella Thomas offered neighborhood-friendly platform planks during the campaign. DeBella Thomas hopes to encourage greater home ownership and perhaps strengthen the city's landlord registry to bolster code enforcement. Phillips wants to rekindle neighborhood planning and identity-building as part of the city's redevelopment strategy. Their visions, however, will be limited by the CRA debt that curbed the fix-up grants for exterior home improvements and will force all city departments to cut expenses by 10 percent in the coming budget year.
People disenfranchised within their own residential surroundings certainly will be disenfranchised on Election Day. Trying to put a renewed focus on neighborhoods is one way to connect to a constituency beyond downtown property owners and business interests.
DeBella Thomas, Phillips and the rest of the New Port Richey City Council will know if voters are truly satisfied with the city's progress under their leadership if more than 525 people show up for the next municipal election.