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A lowly citizen gets a snippy response

Legislators looking for an excuse to ignore overcrowding in Florida schools have been commenting on how little they have been hearing from the public about it.

The reason, it seems to me, is that Joe and Jane Paycheck no longer expect politicians to hear what they have to say. It's only when money talks, they believe, that the pols will listen. Otherwise, what's the use?

Lisa Sibley, a Palm Harbor parent with one child in overcrowded classrooms and another on the way, tried recently to dispel the apathy. She posted an Internet petition (http://www.icepic.com/florida.htm) and publicized it as best as she could. When she had about 60 responses and comments, she forwarded them to each legislator.

The language of her petition was as mild as a Girl Scouts cookie brochure. So Sibley was stunned to receive a nasty e-mail from Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach.

"I don't feel use of this method to coerce people to get involved serves any purpose," Melvin wrote. "Had people been interested, they would have acted on their own since there has been no lack of publicity concerning the matter."

Sibley said Melvin's diatribe confirmed everyone's worst opinion of politicians.

"We as a whole have an attitude, why should we bother saying anything; the legislators are going to do as they say anyway," she said. "Then, when you have Rep. Melvin respond the way he did, it reinforces that attitude."

In the first few hours after the story broke, Sibley said, her Web site received more responses than the entire first batch.

Way to go, Jerry!

Until lately, Melvin has been known outside his Panhandle district only for a quixotic campaign to put the Legislature instead of the Supreme Court and Florida Bar in charge of regulating lawyers.

But the Republican takeover of the House last year put him in a position to do real damage as chairman of the Educational Innovation Committee. It's a post that calls, if not necessarily for global thinking, for something more than the usual legislative "Here's-how-we do-it-in-Tideflats" parochialism. But as Melvin seems to see it, the schools are doing fine where he lives, so why should he worry?

"There are a lot of schools in the state that are not overcrowded, and she is trying to use this method to get everybody riled up," Melvin said. "Had people been interested, they would already have written."

Melvin insisted he has "no objection to people getting active." And yes, he concedes, some schools are overcrowded. But that's because voters in those counties won't approve local sales taxes as his voters in Okaloosa County did.

"They want us to bail them out with our tax monies," he said. "I don't think it's fair. If others can't pass some of their local-effort taxes like some others, it's their problem."

He admitted to being unaware that Sibley's concern for her own son's school, Lake St. George Elementary, related not to construction money but to operating funds. After Pinellas County's 10-day count turned up not enough students for four fifth-grade classes, the enrollment in her son's class was boosted from 26 to 34. State law wouldn't let Pinellas levy sales taxes for that even if the voters wanted to.

At least Melvin answers his mail. Of the 158 other legislators Sibley addressed, only three others replied. Favorably, she notes.

But you've got to wonder whether he would have been so snippy or parochial had the call come from one of the hundreds of campaign contributors outside his district who staked him to his re-election last year.

Of the $123,000 he collected (compared to $24,426 for his runoff opponent and $5,628 for the only Democrat in the race), merely $11,204 was credited to addresses that appear to be in his district. He received more than that _ some $16,300 _ from national political action committees and other out-of-state contributors, including Video Lottery Technologies Inc., of Bozeman, Mont. There was nearly $40,000 from the usual assortment of Tallahassee-based special interests. The rest of Melvin's money came from PACs, corporations and interest groups around the state. The teachers, as it happens, were among the few politically active lobbies that didn't contribute to him.

One would hope that a legislator who is so receptive to campaign contributions from all over Florida (and beyond) ought to be equally as open to problems that lie beyond his district. But that's not the way it works. That they dare to wonder why the public has given up is the ultimate insult.

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