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C. T. Bowen: Move Pasco's city elections to boost turnout

Nothing like a head start. Democratic Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (remember him?) was the first official candidate for the 2008 presidential race, filing his federal campaign papers the day after Election Day 2006.

Turns out it was a false start. Vilsack also was the first candidate to drop out, withdrawing in February 2007, a few weeks after Sen. Hillary Clinton officially entered the contest and started siphoning potential donors away from the other Democratic presidential wanna-bes.

We bring up the time line of the interminable 2008 presidential campaign — was the Florida Democratic primary that didn't count really more than three months ago? — to illustrate the interest it generates. Nine Democrats, a dozen Republicans and an independent raised more than $855-million, so far, in the 18-month campaign that continues with Clinton and U.S. Sen. Barrack Obama still fighting for the Democratic nomination.

Interest is measured in more than dollars. Close to 50 percent of Pasco's Republicans and more than 41 percent of the enrolled Democrats voted in Florida's Jan. 29 presidential primary.

Now consider what it's like to run in a city election in Pasco County.

Dade City Commissioner Steve Van Gorden raised the unheard of sum of $10,980 for the re-election campaign he kicked off five months before the April 8 election. He and candidates Curtis Beebe, Eunice Penix, Jim Shive, Mike Agnello and Robert Avila ran, for the most part, spirited campaigns in the high-profile election to decide three commission seats.

Still, the neighborhood door-knocking, advertising, yard signs, fliers, candidate forum, Web sites, position papers, telephone calls and extensive newspaper coverage brought only 789 people, or less than a quarter of the city's registered voters, to the polls.

On a percentage basis, that was double the turnout in New Port Richey and nearly triple the meager 8.5 percent turnout in Zephyrhills. Only Port Richey, with 31 percent turnout, did better among the Pasco's cities.

Clearly, they are voting (or not voting as it turns out) at the wrong time of the year. The argument for holding the elections in the spring is to give the municipal governments, issues and candidates their time in the spotlight away from the suffocating federal and state campaigns. That is flawed thinking if the spotlight is only bright enough to entice fewer than 1 in 10 registered voters in Zephyrhills to fill a City Council vacancy.

"I just don't think people pay attention,'' said Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, who discounts the theory that people don't turn out to vote because they are so content with the way city halls are operating. In Zephyrhills, Spina said, a recent survey of city residents about municipal government operations brought 300 respondents and "mostly favorable results, but it sure wasn't 90 percent favorable.''

Spina believes the municipal Election Day should be moved. He presented his idea Thursday evening to the Municipal Association of Pasco, which asked him to do more research on the legal issues, potential charter changes including lengthening terms in office and whether a local bill in the Legislature would be needed.

The idea has merit, particularly as governments seek long-term cost-savings property tax revenues from Amendment 1. Joining the November ballot eliminates the need to finance municipal-only elections in April. That could save a few thousand dollars per city per year.

Dade City, where commissioners are elected to four-year terms in even-numbered years, is best positioned to make the move. Most of Pasco's other cities hold elections every year and council members serve two-year terms. New Port Richey is in the process of switching to three-year seats.

In the mid 1990s, the Hernando County city of Brooksville moved its municipal election date to November from December. It temporarily extended terms in office from four years to five to eliminate odd-year elections and ensure a smooth transition by November 1998. Here is the payoff: Nearly 3,000 of Brooksville's 4,666 registered voters cast ballots in the 2004 City Council races. Two years later, turnout was almost 41 percent. So, even in a down year, Brooksville's numbers dwarf every Pasco city.

It is a model to be emulated. Saving a few bucks while promoting up to a fivefold increase in voter participation should be reason enough for Pasco's municipal officials to tackle the logistical challenges.

"Our job,'' Spina said, "is not to make it hard to vote by having elections at an obscure time.''

C. T. Bowen: Move Pasco's city elections to boost turnout 05/03/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 2:04pm]
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