Who's calling the shots at the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District?
I'm not sure, but whoever it is, he/they are doing it without a majority consensus of the fire commissioners, and he/they are making poor decisions to boot.
On April 23, the fire commissioners instructed their attorney and Chief Mike Rampino to attend the next Hernando County Commission meeting to get clarification on the process for creating an independent district. Specifically, the fire commissioners were concerned that if voters approved independence in November, the state Legislature still would have to pass a bill in January that ratified the non-binding referendum, and that the district would not be truly free of county oversight until that law takes effect July 1, 2009. Even then, another referendum would have to be held so voters could determine the tax millage rate that the new independent district could levy.
Set aside for a moment the fact that the fire commissioners and their legal counsel, who have had a year to research and study the laws that govern this process, were still unclear about how it has to play out. While you're at it, overlook that there is a huge assumption by the Fire Commission that Spring Hill voters will approve the request for independence, since they already have turned it down twice, and now we're in the throes of a tax revolt.
Instead, focus on how the fire commissioners' instruction to their staff to seek clarity on that issue, evolved into their attorney showing up at the May 6 County Commission meeting and asking for the November referendum to be canceled so that the fire district could go straight to the Legislature and lobby for a special bill, which voters would have to approve at an unspecified special election next year.
Who authorized the attorney to make that proposal?
Your guess is as good as mine, but he/she/it did so in private, because the decision to postpone the November referendum was not made in public.
Fire Commissioner Leo Jacobs said last week that after the discussion at the April 23 meeting, no one talked to him subsequently about the issue, even though he asked to be kept abreast of the situation.
Commissioner Rob Giamarco also said he was not consulted after the meeting, and he was "shocked'' when he saw the memo from the fire district's attorney to the county attorney about the request to change the date of the referendum.
Commissioner George Biro said the first time he saw the proposal was the morning of the May 6 County Commission meeting. He okayed it then, but maintains it "was not presented well'' and "was blown out of proportion by the media.'' (Side note: If reporting what the fire board's attorney wrote and said is overdoing it, I guess we're guilty as charged.)
Commissioners Geno Panozzo and Charles Raborn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Chief Rampino, who did not attend the May 6 County Commission meeting because he was on vacation, confirmed the fire board did not tell him at the April 23 meeting to propose postponing the referendum. But he did say he and the fire board's attorney, Fabian Loudenauth, later "discussed ways to streamline the process."
"I wasn't there," Rampino said, "but it sounds like there was some confusion."
That's an understatement, and it fuels speculation about whether the request was confused or connived. Either way, delaying the November referendum is exactly the opposite of what the Fire Commission and supporters of independence demanded from the County Commission last year. "Let the people decide," they cried, and three of the five county commissioners agreed.
So, it was not surprising on May 6 that the commissioners reacted negatively to the Fire Commission's request to gain approval from the Legislature first, and Spring Hill voters second. Wisely, the county commissioners delayed an upcoming public hearing on the wording of the referendum so that the Fire Commission and all the lawyers involved in this process could have a few more weeks to work things out.
After witnessing the County Commission's disapproval of the fumbled proposal from the fire district attorney, Spring Hill firefighters union representative Troy Hagar rose to offer what he called "damage control." He assured the commissioners that "it is not our intent to circumvent the voters."
That may be, but it sure looked that way, and whoever made the decision to float that trial balloon exhibited very poor judgment, both practically and politically.
And that is the question that still confounds. Who will claim responsibility for making this ill-advised proposal?
If decisions that affect 100,000 people who live or work within the fire district's boundaries aren't being fully aired in public before the fact, maybe someone could humor us by offering an explanation after the fact.
Jeff Webb can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6123.