Real estate broker Edward Giunta II has gotten off to the wrong start as the new chairman of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. Giunta sent an e-mail to the agency's executive director offering his ideas for rolling back oversight of growth. He also asked the director to poll fellow board members on their agendas for the coming year and to report back — a private channel of communication that would circumvent Florida's Sunshine Laws. Giunta needs to remember that his agency plays an essential role in managing growth, and he should not waive that responsibility. He also needs to show greater sensitivity to the state's open-government laws.
Giunta listed three goals for the coming year in an e-mail last month to director Bob Hunter. One would remove community plans from the county's growth guidebook. Community plans are tools residents use to manage growth in their neighborhoods. While developers regularly fight them, community plans are invaluable in helping distinct parts of town maintain their character and quality of life. The community planning process also enables citizens to be engaged in growth-related issues without hiring lawyers or other high-priced consultants. Doing away with these plans would shut the door on many citizens who want to balance the power of the development community.
Giunta also referred to the "elimination of DCA," the state's Department of Community Affairs. Conservatives from Gov.-elect Rick Scott on down have blasted the DCA as a jobs killer that slows down development projects. Giunta said he is not pushing Hillsborough's planning agency to take sides in the fight — this is a state issue, anyway — but he wants the county to be ready should the next governor or Republican-led Legislature put the state agency out of business.
That explanation would carry more weight if Giunta weren't so open to rolling back the county planning agency's presence at the local level. Giunta said the agency may face budget cuts in the coming year and needs to be prepared. But that is a dialogue the community needs to have in the larger context of the county's budget priorities — and it's wrong to have the chairman pre-empt that debate by making unilateral concessions with the planning process.
Giunta deserves a chance as chairman to rethink how the agency can most effectively serve the public in these tight times. But he should recognize that flattening the regulatory process is hardly the cure-all for a local economy that was devastated in the first place by an overheated housing market. It is troubling, too, that a commissioner who has served on the board for seven years was apparently unaware that it would be illegal for the staff to carry messages between board members. Giunta has a learning curve, but he can make a contribution as chairman if he realizes that the planning board has many constituents.