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Watchdog group is ready to grow

Harry Sexton might be a volunteer, but that doesn't mean government officials can take him lightly when he comes to contest a rezoning, an expressway plan or a tax increase. He knows how to play the bureaucratic ballgame, too.

Sexton, 57, founded the Council of Northwest Hillsborough County Civic Associations 10 years ago.

Now, he's back at the group's helm, and he wants to beef up the often-sparse attendance at monthly meetings and have the council take a more vocal stance on public issues.

Forty-nine civic groups and homeowners associations, including several special taxing districts, belong to the coalition. The groups' boundaries include many of the neighborhoods north and west of Interstate 275 in unincorporated Hillsborough County.

And although the council's reputation is not based on the number of stances it takes in the community, bureaucrats and politicians will appear at meetings eager to answer questions.

"We are an information-gathering organization," said Jan Smith, a Lutz activist and council member. "If an area is having a problem with a rezoning and they have to learn the appropriate steps, they might ask members of the council for suggestions on how to proceed."

What unifies Northwest activists perhaps more than anything else is their dissatisfaction with county government.

Some unsuccessfully advocated _ and continue to advocate _ incorporation of a vast area including Keystone and Lutz as a

way to improve municipal services.

Others, seeking to maintain the rural character of their communities, oppose development and have lobbied against projects such as the proposed Citrus Park Mall.

Two of the group's former presidents, Jim Miller and Dan Ruskiewicz, have run, unsuccessfully, for County Commission on controlled-growth platforms.

Whatever the group does, placards and pickets are out.

"We try to do things the way government does them," said Keystone's Miller, a three-term president of the Northwest Council. Members lobby, write reports and sponsor forums on issues and political debates.

After a number of years of dealing with a particular issue, such as road congestion or stormwater drainage, the council develops its own part-time experts, who go before the County Commission to speak out.

Ruskiewicz, of Carrollwood Village, focuses on drainage and sewage issues, considered particularly acute in areas of the northwest that lack public sewers and adequate stormwater drainage.

One of the recurring issues addressed by the group has been the Northwest Expressway. A core group of members has opposed the project, claiming it will promote urban sprawl and serve large proposed developments.

In turn, members have turned up at public discussions and participated in much of the debate about the road.

County Commissioner Jan Platt credits the group with helping to balance the influence of developers and their lobbyists.

"I think the development interests play a strong role in the county's government _ too strong a role," Platt said. "The Northwest Civic Association attempts to make the commission balanced."

County Commissioner Pam Iorio, whose district representsmuch of the northwest, said this role is important.

Iorio said the Northwest Council performs an educational function, sponsoring forums and debates.

"One of the keys to effectiveness seems to be the time individual members spend with the organization, talking with the press and raising issues that can get into the newspaper," Iorio said.

Sexton, an Air Force veteran who had reviewed management practices at the Pentagon, began attending County Commission meetings regularly in 1980.

At the time, Sexton was not impressed with what he saw.

He decided a coordinating committee keeping tabs on county government would be the best way to keep citizens abreast of everything from suburban borrow pits to overly dense development projects.

During his current stint as president, Sexton sees the decade-old organization as becoming more vocal on issues in the community. He wants to change the group's bylaws to take in smaller homeowners associations, thereby increasing the membership base and, ultimately, attendance.

He said he also wants the council to undertake:

Monitoring of Hillsborough County's budget process, which he says is incomprehensible to most.

An effort to get the county to use "zero-based" budgeting, in which every program and public employee would have to be justified annually, instead of refinancing government departments at current levels with yearly increases.

A campaign to clean up the county for the horde of visitors expected for next year's Super Bowl.

But before such projects can go anywhere, Sexton will have to beef up attendance at meetings.

"When I was president the first two years, we used to pack the meeting rooms," he said. "It wasn't unusual to have 40 to 60 people at a council meeting."

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