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Election time is no time for decisions

County Commissioner Ginny Brown-Waite has a white bulletin board in her office to remind her of her most pressing duties.

Written there, in somewhat faded magic marker, is a message reading "Sand Ord."

It refers to an ordinance she proposed several months ago that would require trucks carrying rock and sand from mines to pay for the wear they put on county roads.

That it has never come before the commission is partly the staff's fault, she said, and partly, she acknowledges, her own.

This issue is one example of what is widely perceived as a substantial slowdown in county business as the elections approach.

"Shall we call it a hiatus?" Brown-Waite asked.

Commissioners, who all say they consider their jobs to be full-time work, are spending fewer hours in their offices. Agendas in recent weeks have been full of resolutions honoring Boy Scouts and veterans. Tuesday, more than an hour was spent discussing which bulldozer the county should buy.

The top stories have been about a zoning variance granted a hospital, the impending expansion of a branch library and the delay of a decision on tire burning at Florida Crushed Stone Co., an issue that has been bandied about in commission chambers for more than two years.

"Honestly, we probably could have been meeting once a month rather than once a week," Brown-Waite said.

Noticeably absent from the county business has been any discussion of some of the more pressing issues facing the county: a review of the impact fee ordinance, which is already about three years overdue; the mining ordinance, which the commission tabled this summer after it preoccupied them for more than eight months; the hiring of a purchasing director, which also was suggested nearly a year ago.

Some, like Commissioner Harold Varvel, said autumn, especially if it lacks a controversial budget battle, tends to be the slow season in county business.

"I think it's just the time of year," he said.

But others note that three of the five commissioners _ June Ester, John Richardson and Varvel _ are running for re-election. Brown-Waite has abandoned her seat after two years to run for the Florida Senate.

There is a tendency in such times, critics say, to avoid making controversial decisions. And when commissioners are busy with campaign work, they have less time to spend on county business.

"They're stalling on everything," longtime commission observer John Tenini said. "That's because they're running scared, and they ought to be running scared. They're out there campaigning, and they're out there beating the bushes."

In August, an internal county audit found serious flaws in the county's purchasing operation. It recommended the potentially controversial step of hiring a $45,000-a-year purchasing director.

"I would like to get this job filled ASAP," said County Administrator Chuck Hetrick on Sept. 4, and estimated that he would do so in two or three weeks.

He has yet to bring it before the commission, and it's not on next week's agenda.

Ester said she has noticed things are happening more slowly than usual. But she also said it was not entirely the commission's fault.

She pointed to the delay of the mining ordinance, the single issue that caused the most complaints from commission critics. The county staff introduced a proposed ordinance in November. Since then it had been the No. 1 issue facing the county, and the subject of nearly a dozen workshops and meetings between county staffers, mining activists and representatives from the mines.

Then, in the first public hearing in July, with a decision imminent, the commission voted to assign it to a different county department and scheduled meetings with only two lawyers representing both sides present.

"It's obvious they're ducking it," mining activist Harry Downing said at the time. "There's no way they could be on this thing for eight months and not be ducking it."

But, Ester said, the facts placed before the commission were too disparate to allow the commission to make an intelligent decision. Also, she continued to insist that she expects the county to make a decision on the mining ordinance before the election.

That seems less likely after last week, when Jake Varn, the lawyer representing the mining interests, informed the county he would have to delay the next meeting several weeks to take care of other case work.

Whatever the basis of the commission's decision on the mining ordinance, elections are simply something that politicians consider, former county Commissioner Len Tria said.

"Let's be practical _ of course that's something that goes through your mind," he said.

Tria is involved in another issue, impact fees, that has been due to come before the commission for more than three years.

The county's impact fee ordinances, which require builders of new homes and commercial business to pay for such things as roads, schools and public parks, took effect in January 1987. State law requires that they be reviewed every two years. An advisory board, of which Tria is a member, was formed to review them.

In 1990, a consultant recommended the county triple its impact fee. Another consultant, hired by the Hernando County Builders Association, refuted that claim.

He presented his report to the advisory board in April. It said then it would present its recommendations to the County Commission as soon as May.

It still has not come up.

Tria said it has been submitted to the staff and is being put in document form. As with most such issues, the reason the commission has not acted is not always simple.

Commissioners often blame staff members for not producing documents fast enough. But in reality, staffers react to pressure from commissioners.

Mike Herr, the former deputy county administrator, said he has never seen commissioners intentionally drag their feet on issues because of coming elections.

But, he said, what comes up before the commission is ultimately decided by the commission.

"The board basically controls the agenda," he said.