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Council should change its tune

Published Oct. 18, 2005

I have been accused of having it in for the Hillsborough County Commission. This is not so. I write about the commission frequently because the Tampa City Council usually isn't as funny.

But then the council turns around and makes a fool of me.

This happens whenever the council decides to take on the mayor. Council members have gone into battle with her so often in the last four years you would think they all stayed home and instead replayed the audio tape of the same meeting every time.

This time, the council has escalated the battle and voted to override a budget veto by the mayor.

Nothing in the law requires the mayor to spend the disputed $1.7-million on the extra firefighters the council wants, so the override was, if not an empty gesture, then just testy.

My saying this may not seem especially fair to the council members, who have been feeling mighty frustrated.

Larry Smith says he wants to be more involved with the budget process. Joe Greco, meantime, is wondering whether the charter needs hanging.

This dispute, he said, "really focuses attention on what the charter is about."

You could make a smart-sounding argument that the councilmen are right. The charter gives the mayor about the same clout as Saddam Hussein, without the tanks and the oil. The charter leaves so many of the details of running government up to whoever is in charge that the document itself runs just 10 pages.

But you can bet your own copy of the charter, or your own council member, if you think he or she is worth it, that the balance of power won't change unless and until the mayor is found to be 1) inept or 2) corrupt.

All we have now is a mayor who by virtue of all her authority frequently gets away with being 3) invisible, and a council that sets reverse records for leadership.

It has hired a psychologist, asked for more staff when the budget was tight, or, in the case of some individuals, gotten into trouble or went starry-eyed with ambition.

Perry Harvey, a veteran who has talked of running for mayor, has been under federal investigation for a year over doings at his longshoremen's union.

Halfway through his first term as a council member, Larry Smith is already challenging the mayor's re-election bid, against the counsel of some people whose advice he sought. This is the same guy who wants to be more involved in the budget.

And the above-mentioned Joe Greco, who is also just halfway through his first term, is already planning to run for mayor. "Oh, yes," he said without hesitation, "in 1995."

Running for mayor is probably what you do when you get to be a councilman and find it isn't your cup of tea, which is fine for the councilman, but potentially lousy for the people he represents.

Deciding to cut and run, though, may be inevitable under the current system.

But changing the system would be worth talking about if the council members were more compelling, less fit as material for this space.

You can hear more stirring speeches from the neighborhood groups that plead regularly before the council than from the members themselves. (In this case, the council was taking up for the firefighters' union.)

You never hear how anyone on the council has the same level of public recognition and admiration that the mayor has (regardless of how hard she is to get to see).

But you do hear the same old song from the City Council, good for whistling and toe-tapping, not much else.