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A face lift for Tampa? Not quite

Bill Jonson is the last tilter at windmills. His mission in life is to rid this state of its most indelible feature, excluding alligator wrestling acts: billboards.

It's got to get him down, going after these guys, year after year. But he doesn't show it. Jonson, a Clearwater retiree and president of the Florida chapter of the anti-billboard group Scenic America, just repeats the obvious to anybody who'll talk to him: "Florida, for being a tourist destination, just is not aware of the clutter we've created."

But in Tampa, thems that count finally figured it out. The city had reached its critical mass for ugliness and was in danger of sliding into the bay under the weight of everything junking it up, beginning with billboards.

So, miracle of miracles, the mayor stepped up to the plate last Thursday and urged the City Council to pass an ordinance designed to make it more difficult to put up new billboards near residential areas.

It took Dick Greco only 3{ years. In the summer of 1996, the mayor went on a goofy tear about the little signs erected by the little people _ signs offering garage sales and pleading for the return of lost puppies _ as if they were a greater threat to our well-being than the billboards that make you nearly carsick while you're driving Hillsborough Avenue and trying to find an address.

The City Council started dithering last fall about billboards, passing an ordinance and then taking it back, and the billboard companies, sensing the gravy train might be going off the track, submitted nearly 50 permits for new billboards. According to City Council member Bob Buckhorn, a likely candidate to replace Greco in a few years, about two dozen of the permits have been approved. That many new billboards may be erected.

Ah, government. One step forward, one step back, and pretty soon you're going in circles.

Nevertheless, last week, the most recalcitrant council members got in line behind the mayor _ the safest place in town to be, politically speaking, short of the government's hurricane emergency center. They voted for the billboard ordinance. They even went further, asking for a tougher ordinance to ban all new billboards, period. And the mayor vowed to name the urban blight version of a drug czar, somebody Greco is calling his "sign czar."

Believe it when you see it.

It's been two months since the city struck back at that other, more celebrated source of our civic tackiness, the nude clubs. The girls are still swaying and bending over, and the men are still paying to get so very happy. The rest of us are still waiting for the arrests to begin. So why should the city move any faster against billboards?

You'd think the embarrassment of being less progressive than Pasco County, where the County Commission once voted to let the Ku Klux Klan adopt a road and keep it clean, would embarrass us. But no, Pasco went after billboards before Tampa did.

I am not mellowing, but I am wrong to complain. Tampa could be worse. It could be as ugly as Orlando, and nothing is uglier than that theme park-o-rama.

Bill Jonson, the no-billboard man, pointed out in his quiet voice that Orlando hasn't been very responsive to his ideas. I asked him to name the ugliest road in the state. It was 192 in Kissimmee, where the pizza parlor signs hide the T-shirt shop signs that hide the miniature golf signs that hide the motel signs that hide the street signs and traffic lights.

Your out-of-state relatives nevertheless spend good money there. Some of them even like it.

They like Tampa, too. So do I.

That's why, once they figure out the billboard problem, I recommend they throw out the zoning law that permitted air conditioning repair shops next to day care centers next to franchise restaurants next to used car lots next to fruit stands next to apartment complexes next to laundromats next to convenience stores _ and start all over again.