Bowen: Watch out for flying elbows in non-election years

In their first post-election meeting, Pasco County Commissioners bypass two board members in picking their vice chairman.
ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times
The proverbial elbows were flying last week in the commission chambers inside the Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City.
ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times The proverbial elbows were flying last week in the commission chambers inside the Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City.
Published December 6

You can tell it’s basketball season. The elbows are flying.

Look no further than the Pasco County Commission chambers. Last week, you could have seen a subtle nudge to the ribs or a proverbial blood-provoking whack to the nose. No fouls called.

It started during the commission’s reorganization when the board named its chairman and vice chairman for 2019. For the past several years, the roles have rotated. This time it was Commissioner Ron Oakley’s turn to hold the gavel after spending the prior year as vice chairman.

So what does it mean to be chairman?

“That means I get to hear all the problems first,’’ Oakley deadpanned.

What it really means is that you get to run the meeting, set the agenda, control appointments to boards like Tampa Bay Water and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and grab lots of face time or free ink as the person journalists seek for comment.

The vice chair simply fills in during absences and waits a year before becoming chairman. At least that’s the way it’s been for the past five years. If the rotation had continued, Commissioner Jack Mariano would have been picked vice chairman. After that, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey would have been elevated.

But as soon as Oakley called for nominations, Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. supported Commissioner Mike Moore as vice chairman. Moore served as chair in 2017. There were no other nominations.

Moore said afterward he was honored by the faith the others had in his leadership.

Not everyone felt honored.

“I was disappointed,’’ said Starkey. “I’ll leave it at that.’’

Bypassing Mariano probably shouldn’t be a surprise. His last term as chairman in 2013-14 brought open antagonism on the dais. As chairman, he signed a critical letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers without consulting the rest of the board. Later, he was accused by commissioners of hijacking a meeting so he and supporters could focus solely on their pet project: SunWest Park.

There are long memories in the county building, even if Starkey is the only commissioner remaining in office from that tenure. It’s also worth noting all five commissioners are Republicans.

Skipping over Starkey is harder to figure, although she has been accused of big-footing into other commissioners' districts. And one of her favorite endeavors, the combined K-8 school and public library/theater planned for Starkey Ranch, is in Wells' district.

Wells said afterward he just nominated the person he thought was best for the job.

“I haven’t really seen that we’ve had a rotation,’’ Wells said in an interview. “To me, it’s the best person for the job. Mike (Moore) did a good job running the meetings; that’s what’s important to me.’’

Then he added, “I didn’t hear anybody else speak up.’’

Wells Jr. has more historical perspective on this than most. His father, retired Property Appraiser Mike Wells, served eight years on the commission in 1984-92. The elder Wells waited six years to serve as chairman, being snubbed by the three-person Democratic majority multiple times. He then served back-to-back terms as chairman before he left the commission.

Likewise, former Commissioner Pat Mulieri felt spurned when the board bypassed her during her first four-year term. On the other extreme, former Commissioner Ann Hildebrand served two consecutive terms as chair during her last two years in office in 2011-12.

Starkey, who served as chair once during her six years in office, apparently will have to sight tight. But not so tight that she refrained from tossing her own not-so-subtle jab at Mariano.

During the meeting, Starkey, who represents Pasco on the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority and Tampa Bay Water, briefed fellow commissioners on a pending regional discussion of mass transit.

“I think it’s really important we give the board an update on what is happening,’’ she said. “That’s a board decision, not just my decision.’’

What she avoided saying was that Mariano was wrong to not bring a regional planning council resolution to the full Pasco Commission for consideration. The resolution created the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition to address climate change and rising sea levels. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee counties all joined — but not Pasco. Times staff writer Tracey McManus detailed Mariano's reluctance in a story published online Nov. 16.

Mariano already had heard the message long before Starkey’s nudge.

“I apologize to the board for putting Pasco County in a bad light by not being part of that resolution,’’ he said later in the meeting. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t join it, but it does mean we can actually make this thing better.’’

Grab a seat. The season is just starting.

Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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