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County planners may replace public panel with newsletter

For roughly four years, Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has done little to meet requirements for public participation in its decision-making process, and county planners are trying to remedy the situation. Bylaws written for the MPO in the early '80s call for an appointed citizens advisory committee that would bring before the MPO issues of interest to the general public. Such a committee was in place at least through 1986 but was plagued by absenteeism, so MPO coordinator Doug Uden hopes to replace the committee and fulfill the public participation requirement with a newsletter distributed to various civic and political organizations.

"We've always had our meetings open to the public, and our mailing list is pretty big. I just think this is a matter of formalizing it and getting more people exposed to what we do, so they can get involved if they want," said Uden, Pasco's transportation planning coordinator.

Uden said no advisory committee was in place when he took over the MPO three years ago, and it has never been a major concern because the group made sure to advertise its meetings, to at least allow public attendance. The state Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the planning organization, generally has taken the same attitude, according to James Edwards, who participates in the DOT's review of the Pasco group.

The MPO includes elected city and county officials and is responsible for transportation planning decisions in West Pasco, particularly decisions involving federal highway funds designated for the Pasco metropolitan area. State and federal law require each MPO to facilitate public participation in some way.

The advisory committee originally established to encourage public

participation was a problem from the start but was kept in place several years, according to Edwards, who was Pasco's first MPO coordinator before going to work for DOT.

"In my past experience, getting it organized and keeping the interest was a lot of work," Edwards said. "I think the interest kind of waned because we weren't involved in preparation of a long-range plan that would give the group a mission."

While they might not have participated, members were appointed to the advisory committee at least through 1986, according to MPO Chairman Peter Altman, a New Port Richey City Council member. At some point, the group disbanded completely, but no attention was paid until this year, when the DOT requested that the county make some attempt to encourage public participation.

Uden has turned to the newsletter alternative in hopes that it would be more effective than the advisory committee. His plan calls for a monthly mailing to the media and civic and political groups, reviewing issues the MPO is considering and listing the time and place of meetings.

Edwards, who oversees Pasco's MPO program for the DOT, said a newsletter could be written to fulfill public participation requirements, and he said it might be a good idea in light of Pasco's experience.

Altman agrees, although he is not convinced that the advisory committee should be abandoned.

"I'm not against the idea of having a citizens advisory committee

established if there is interest in the community," Altman said. "But we do not need another skeleton committee."