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New member learns art of compromise

Rookie commissioner Chris Kingsley shows the skills of a veteran politician, winning support for his issues and leading his colleagues to common ground.

County Commissioner Chris Kingsley is fond of reminding his four colleagues that he is the new guy on the commission. He utters the "I'm still new" line so often, it has become an inside joke. Whenever he repeats the refrain, everyone on the dais smiles knowingly.

Despite the disclaimers, Kingsley rarely acts like an uncertain rookie anymore.

Eight months into his first term as an elected official, he has carved out a role usually associated with veterans _ pushing pet issues to the fore, casting decisive votes and, to an extent, trying to keep peace on the commission.

"It makes it stressful. My poor thin hair is getting thinner," he joked recently. "But it makes you feel good, like what you're doing makes a difference."

Nothing so far has made Kingsley prouder, he says, than his apparent success at forging a compromise on a long-term residential road repaving program. The achievement is all the more notable because commissioners have grappled with the thorny issue for years.

Under Kingsley's approach, a temporary 3-cent gas tax would be extended from 2002 to 2007, with 1 cent left on indefinitely. More than 400 miles of shabby residential roads would be repaved by 2006, and the county would be able to afford a second round of paving beginning in 2014. The commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal Aug. 17 at the Hernando County Fairgrounds.

Kingsley, a 47-year-old Democrat, concedes his plan is not ideal. But it appears to enjoy one virtue a myriad of discarded proposals lacked: Four commissioners _ the minimum needed to raise or extend the gas tax _ say they support it.

"I think he has grown in office, and I think he's doing a great job," said Commissioner Paul Sullivan, a Republican. "We will continue to disagree on some issues, but I find myself in agreement more and more because I think he's starting to view the big picture."

Unlike Sullivan, Bobbi Mills, the commission's other Republican, has disagreed with Kingsley on a host of issues lately. But she warmly praised his approach to the $42,387-a-year job.

"I like the way he conducts himself, some of the questions he asks," she said. "He seems to weigh both sides before making decisions. He educates himself about issues."

Kingsley's recent personal highlights include:

He pushed commissioners to close the so-called gun show loophole in state law by requiring prospective buyers at gun shows in Hernando County to pass a criminal background check and wait three days.

He broke a 2-2 logjam on a tentative vote to ban commercial boats from docking behind residences at Hernando Beach, but not before successfully adding an exemption for boats under 26 feet. A final vote on a ban is expected Tuesday.

He delivered a key vote for plans to consolidate the East and Northwest fire districts and to implement a new billing method that would raise residential assessments by about 40 percent, to $116 a year. A final vote is set for Aug. 17.

Kingsley has also had some near misses. A bid to limit the interest title loan businesses charge seemed headed toward passage until the rest of the commission opted for a more lenient ordinance.

If there is anything that has struck Kingsley more than the job's stress level, it is the time demand. Besides attending weekly marathon commission meetings, he acts as the liaison to the Economic Development Commission, Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council and other groups. Conferences have taken him to Orlando several times and to St. Louis.

Kingsley does not enjoy his long days away from home, and neither does his 9-year-old daughter, Kali. Annoyed at his busy schedule, she recently asked her mother, Terry: "Why did we get Daddy elected? We don't see him anymore."

Fighting "parochialism'

Few weeks go by without Kingsley speaking out against what he considers "parochialism" in county government. He complains that too many decisions are based not on the good of the county, but on how they affect a small segment of the population.

Take the fire service debate. Today, the map of fire districts resembles a crazy quilt. Separate departments protect Brooksville, Spring Hill, Hernando Beach, High Point, the county's east side, its northwest region and the Istachatta-Nobleton area in the extreme northeast.

Kingsley, who became a teacher after a stint as a Clearwater firefighter during the 1980s, favors merging the East and Northwest districts this year as a first step. Eventually he would like to have a unified countywide fire service.

"It is our responsibility to make sure everyone has equally good fire service," he said.

Mills and commission Chairwoman Pat Novy both oppose the consolidation, partly because of the higher residential rates. Their positions make sense politically, considering their terms expire next year.

Though Kingsley's position is rooted in his personal philosophy, he acknowledged that he can afford to worry less about the potential political fallout.

"I'm not up for re-election until 2002," he said. "Sometimes, controversial issues are easier for someone who's up for re-election farther into the future."

That's not to say Kingsley enjoys those occasions when commissioners, ready to decide an issue but reluctant to speak themselves, turn to him for a motion.

"To be honest, I feel I'm alone a lot," he said.

Some observers think Kingsley, in his zeal to do right by the whole county, is forgetting about the little guy.

John Tenini, a member of the Good Government League, supported Kingsley's successful quest to oust former Commissioner Ray Lossing, a onetime league member whom Tenini and others later accused of ignoring voters.

Just as Lossing's bloom quickly faded in the eyes of league members, so has Kingsley's _ at least for Tenini. He said the freshman commissioner's performance can be summed up in one word: "disappointment."

Tenini disagrees with Kingsley's support of the proposed fire rates, which would be based on past demand. Because houses account for about 60 percent of fire calls, their assessments would skyrocket, while rates for the Wal-Mart Distribution Center and other businesses would plummet. (A consultant says the current rates were set arbitrarily and are legally questionable.)

"To approve rates that a blind man on a galloping horse can see are unfair is beyond me," Tenini said. "He's not looking out for the people. He's going along with Sullivan and (Commissioner Nancy) Robinson. It looks like a Sullivan and Robinson and Kingsley thing."

To others, though, Kingsley's votes display an unexpected independence.

"In the very beginning I thought he would be beholden to the Good Government League," said Janey Baldwin, who attends most commission meetings. "I knew Pat Novy helped him in the campaign. (Good Government League members) were influential in his campaign. But I knew he was educated. I thought, that's a plus. I've been pleasantly surprised."

The art of compromise

It is axiomatic that compromise often is the key to getting legislation passed, whether in Congress or local government. Kingsley is certainly no stranger to the art. It has helped him smooth some very long-lasting decisions. For instance, when the Kingsleys' only child was born, they could not agree on a name. So they consulted a book and hit upon Kali, a Hindu goddess.

Resolving the road-paving dispute would prove a little more difficult. For one thing, there was no book of solutions sitting on a shelf.

Three times this spring and summer, commissioners held public hearings, and three times they wound up in gridlock. Various proposals to raise the gas tax all foundered. After the third try, Kingsley sounded pessimistic, calling it "a dead issue."

Though discouraged, Kingsley did not give up. That night, he said, he began searching anew for ways to end the long-running dispute that was straining civility on the commission.

The odds were long because of the deep divides separating commissioners.

Kingsley knew the calculus: Mills would insist on ending the temporary tax by a certain date and would refuse to vote for any increase. Novy felt the county already had enough money and was also opposed to an increase.

On the other side, Sullivan and Robinson both demanded a plan that addressed short- and long-term paving needs, and both supported a higher gas tax, as he did, to pay for it.

Kingsley's latest proposal, unveiled last month, managed to thread the needle, leaving only Mills opposed. Sullivan decided it was better than nothing, though he preferred a shorter time frame. Robinson pronounced herself satisfied. And Novy, no longer insisting the money was already there, said she felt comfortable because the indefinite 1-cent tax extension did not constitute an increase.

Kingsley does not take full credit for the breakthrough. He and other commissioners point out that Kingsley's idea arose only after Mills made a bid to restart discussions. And Novy said she was preaching a gas-tax extension as early as June 15.

Still, it is Kingsley's proposal that will likely pass later this month.

"Good legislators find good compromises," said County Administrator Bonnie Dyga, "and I think he's finding those. I think that's great. I'm tickled to death."

In the middle once again

Kingsley may have been the best person to solve the residential road impasse, given the bad will floating around County Commission chambers lately. In fact, he may have been the only one with enough personal capital among his colleagues to win their support.

By early this summer, the paving logjam had caused tension among commissioners to swell and spill over into the personal. Sullivan and Robinson said voters would have to show their displeasure with Mills and Novy by voting them out of office. Kingsley made no such comments.

The strain threatened to explode when it was revealed in June that Novy secretly inquired about a state audit of county operations. She questioned administrators' claims that existing money would not pay for a road-repaving program. Sullivan and Robinson were so angry that they publicly called for Novy to be removed as chairwoman. Mills, meanwhile, rushed to Novy's defense.

Once again, Kingsley found himself in the middle, holding the deciding vote. When Robinson invited Kingsley to make a motion to demote Novy, he refused. He said Novy was wrong to do what she did but should not lose her position over it.

Mills credits Kingsley with drawing a bright line between matters of policy and personality.

"We can be bitterly opposed on an issue, and when you go past those doors it's like night and day," she said. "He can be just as friendly and pleasant as can be."

Kingsley said he just tries not to worry about personalities, adding, "I just get along with all of them, I think."