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Sometimes a citizens' board outlives need

Published Oct. 13, 2005

If you looked only at the surface of the Hernando County Commission's treatment of citizens' committees and boards, you might think commissioners were the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. It seems that if the boards displease them, they simply cry out, "Off with their heads!' Look at the record.

When the Istachatta-Nobleton Recreation Board openly disagreed with commissioners about the building of the giant Kiwanis Club conference center in their neighborhood, commissioners simply yanked authority over the land away from the board.

And that's not all.

In the past seven months, commissioners have abolished three citizens' boards: Code Enforcement, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and Appeals and, most recently, the Freedom From Architectural Barriers (FAB) committee.

The actions look pretty mercenary.

But in truth, the record isn't as venal as it seems. Three of the four instances turned out for the best anyway, and the fourth may turn out likewise.

Two of the boards simply had outlived their usefulness. The code enforcement board had become ineffective. Many people said it was too forgiving and lenient.

The code enforcement board did have the power to levy fines against transgressors, but collecting them was something else. In 1989, the state recognized this and passed a law allowing county officials to issue tickets, similar to speeding tickets, that were quick and easy to enforce. One citation could cost $100; a second offense, $200; and a third would be as much as $500 and a trip to court. Non-payment would result in contempt of court charges and a possible jail term.

Now, that can get the attention of some laggard who didn't mow his lawn.

The Zoning Board fell victim to personalities. Commissioners said it was dissolved over tensions between between the board and the public, but there also was acrimony among board members themselves. Some members were absolutely uncompromising in regard to county ordinances, a stance that made mockery of the title "adjustments and appeals." If adjustments never were allowed and appeals dismissed out of hand, why should the board exist?

Even the board chairman and at least one board member admitted things had gotten so bad, it was best to close down.

Besides, the often long, argumentative meetings required the presence of a county employee, who was often on overtime.

Now the commissioners themselves make decisions on zoning adjustments, and that appears to be working better.

The Istachatta recreation board matter resolved itself when the weight of reason against the Kiwanis venture overtook the clout of intimidation that favored it. The recreation board didn't have to see to the plan's death; it killed itself through the arrogance of its perpetrators.

The abolition of the FAB committee, a handicap advisory board, is not so rosy.

It is astonishing that anyone even would doubt the necessity of advocates for handicapped people in a retirement community. Without question, the board is needed.

Still, there seemed to be a basic misunderstanding on the part of some commissioners regarding the architectural barriers board's role in county government. Some commissioners seemed to think the group was supposed to be cheerleaders for county government. They especially didn't like it when the board pointed out the deficiencies within the new courthouse itself. Commissioners also thought the advisory board was getting a little pushy asking for $65,000 for lobbyists.

The board members, on the other hand, saw themselves as watchdogs for handicapped people _ a position that seems perfectly logical.

Commissioners may think that by banning the board, they've ridded themselves of some troublesome gnats. It's more likely they've created a hive of killer bees.

Several handicap committee members say they're going to reorganize as a private group. And they say they're going to be more effective operating outside county government.

They're probably right. As long as they were in-house, they may have thought they owed a certain deference to county officials. County officials, of course, could attend their own committee's meetings.

As an independent organization, the advocates have no obligation to the county. And as long as they remain simply a lobbying group, they can bar whomever they please from meetings _ though they would be foolish to bar people who can help them bring pressure to bear for their causes.

There's something appealing about the sound of "citizens' committee." It harkens to the grand tradition of grassroots control. Many times it works out, and we're all better off. But sometimes it doesn't _ and many times that's best in the long run.