The municipal election season begins at noon today with the opening of the week-long candidate qualifying period, but politicking in advance of the April 14 election day has been under way for some time.
Difficult chores lie ahead for the people in local elected office. They must confront the public's appetite for services, and do it against a malnourished revenue stream further starved by increased tax exemptions, falling property values, declining sales and gas taxes and reduced state aid.
It is easier to lead when the cash drawer is flush, but that is simply not the case in 2009. Voters this year will be selecting mayors and council members in cities debating merging services, jump-starting downtown redevelopment and one local government's very existence.
While would-be public servants have a week to get their names on the ballot, would-be voters have until March 16 to register to ensure that their voices are heard.
There should be no hesitation. Traditionally, voter turnout is greatest in Port Richey, sometimes as high as 40 percent, but the showing is dismal in other locales. A turnout of less than 9 percent in April 2008 brought a logical suggestion from Zephyrhills' city manager to move the municipal elections to the November ballot, but there has been little enthusiasm elsewhere.
The importance of public participation grows this year in light of the issues in Pasco's larger cities. Consider:
In Zephyrhills, the city firefighters' union is boasting of flexing its political muscle after a simple inquiry from Council member Manny Funes about the cost-savings tied to using Pasco County for fire protection. It is a topic worthy of a thorough public debate in these lean economic times and shouldn't be scuttled in the name of appeasing a special interest.
The city will also see at least one new face on the council. Clyde Bracknell, who has served for nearly three decades, announced he will not seek re-election. The council seats held by Funes and Kenneth Compton also will be on the ballot. All are two-year terms.
In New Port Richey, two incumbents, Marilynn deChant and Judy DeBella Thomas, said they will seek re-election to three-year terms. But before voters cast ballots, the council members may have to cast votes on a controversial measure to sue the developer of the stalled Main Street Landings project.
The planned mix of first-floor stores topped by residential condominiums along Main Street and the Pithlachascotee River — the first large-scale private-sector investment in the city's fledgling redevelopment — has been idle for more than two years. Financial woes and city rejection of a special taxing district to aid the developer halted construction. The partially-built cinder block walls surrounded by construction fencing is the symbol of near-dormant downtown redevelopment.
In Port Richey, voters will determine the direction of their city as they consider two council positions. Mayor Richard Rober, a proponent of maintaining the city government, is up for re-election. So is Vice Mayor Mark Hashim who ran successfully two years ago on a platform of folding the city's municipal government as a cost-saving measure for its 3,000 residents.
The outcome of the council races — both are two-year terms — will be a likely precursor to a future referendum on whether the city government should disband and be absorbed by Pasco County.
The list of government spending issues awaiting election winners is significant. Voters should neither tolerate personality clashes nor be satisfied with simplistic platitudes from candidates. They should look beyond the resume-builders or people simply seeking the additional paycheck. Intellect, sensibility and creativity should be the prerequisites for local elected office in 2009.