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Renaming trail hurts father

Published Sep. 27, 2005

An advocate for bicyclists is upset that the County Commission is naming the Pinellas Trail after the longtime county administrator.

Pinellas County commissioners were positively giddy on the evening of Aug. 29.

Like little kids with a juicy secret they're just aching to tell, commissioners scurried around before their weekly meeting grinning and winking at each other.

It was quite a feat, really. Not only had they managed to share the secret with each other without technically breaking Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, but they had also hatched their plans right under the nose of an unsuspecting Fred Marquis, who in 22 years as the county's administrator had missed little.

With local TV cameras rolling, commissioners read a proclamation announcing that the 10-year-old Pinellas Trail would be renamed the Fred E. Marquis Pinellas Trail in honor of the retiring county administrator.

It worked. Marquis, who was presiding over his last meeting before retirement, was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that he started to cry.

The announcement also surprised Bert Valery Jr., an Indian Rocks Beach resident who read about the commissioners' decision in the newspaper. Valery began pushing for a safe bicycling path 17 years ago after his teenage son, Albert Valery III, was hit by a car and killed while biking across the Belleair Causeway.

The way Valery remembers it, the first few times he suggested a bike and pedestrian path to Pinellas County officials, no one, including Marquis, was interested. Residents worked on the proposal long before the county got involved, Valery said.

"I was really upset, to say the least," he said. "As much as Fred has done to help us have the trail, he came into this as a player one-third of the way into the game. Lots and lots was done prior to Fred getting involved."

No more than a handful of other residents have called or e-mailed commissioners to oppose naming the trail for Marquis. None has the history with the trail that Valery does.

Commissioners stand by their decision. County documents suggest that Marquis encouraged the state to buy the old railroad lines eventually used for the Pinellas Trail. And Marquis championed the Penny for Pinellas tax, which paid for part of the trail.

"We didn't just kind of arrive at that decision helter-skelter. A lot of thought went into that," said Commissioner Calvin Harris. "Naming the trail does not minimize (Valery's) efforts or those of thousands of other volunteers. But Fred, in his position, did as much if not more than anybody else to make that happen, and it's fitting."

"A long list' of supporters

By most accounts, Valery was sort of a maverick who pushed the issue of bike and pedestrian safety to the forefront in Pinellas County. His 17-year-old son was bicycling home from a part-time job when he was killed on the Belleair Causeway in April 1983.

He pushed the county to create a bicycle advisory committee, a group that now advises the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation planning board.

Valery said he and a small group of residents also urged the county to create an exercise path along an unused railroad corridor, down Florida Power easements or along drainage easements.

County officials, including Marquis, did not seem interested, Valery said. They wanted to save the railroad corridor for a possible high-speed rail, he said.

"Fred didn't pop up and say, "This is terrific.' He didn't say anything," Valery said. "They weren't buying it. Who the heck would use a linear park? They just didn't understand the concept."

Valery said the county reluctantly agreed to the trail idea around 1985, when the state threatened to give the railroad property to adjacent landowners if the county failed to use it. That's when Marquis got involved, he said.

Marquis disagrees.

He said he was interested in creating the Pinellas Trail from the get-go. He said he asked former state Sen. Mary Grizzle to talk fellow legislators into buying the railroad right of way from Seaboard Coastline Railroad. The state then leased the property to the county for the trail.

Marquis recalls Valery pushing for bike lanes on Pinellas County's roads, but does not remember him being involved in the original plans for the Pinellas Trail.

"He was trying to promote lanes on the highway. It wasn't until after the trail got established that he got involved," said Marquis.

He said he was not surprised that some residents oppose naming the trail for him.

"No matter how much of an honor it is, there are those who disagree and that would be the same if you tried to name a sewer plant after me," he said. "I'm a little bit disappointed that it would come from Bert. I guess that's the way he feels. So be it."

In November 1989, voters approved the Penny for Pinellas, a one-cent increase in the sales tax used to fund infrastructure improvements such as the Pinellas Trail. Marquis was one of the Penny's biggest supporters.

"If they want to thank Fred for anything, they should thank him for the Penny for Pinellas," Valery said. "I don't want to hurt Fred's feelings here. I think Fred's done a marvelous job, but hell, that's his job. I want to say, "Thank you,' but to name the trail after him, I think that's a far stretch."

Valery has suggested that if the trail were named for anyone, it should be for his son. But he is not enthusiastic about anyone's name being attached to the trail.

Others close to the Pinellas Trail disagree with Valery. Scott Daniels, president of Pinellas Trails Inc., a volunteer group that provides amenities for the trail, said he was ecstatic about Marquis' name gracing the trail.

Marquis was instrumental in making the trail happen, Daniels said. And Marquis has already applied to be a volunteer ranger along the trail. If he sees anything wrong, he will know just whom to call to fix it, Daniels said.

"I assure you (interim County Administrator) Gay Lancaster and other officials will take a call from Fred Marquis," Daniels said. "You have to have somebody who's going to be a cheerleader, a supporter, an inspiration and a reminder. He was in a position to make sure people knew the importance of it.

"Yeah, a lot of people worked on it, but it is truly under his leadership that this happened, and I think the recognition is deserved."

In his position at the county's helm, Marquis was able to take ideas like the one Valery had and make them reality, said Dan Mann, a former Pinellas Trails Inc. president who still serves on the board.

"They say success has 1,000 fathers and failure is an orphan. There's enough people out there to claim, "Oh yeah, I did that trail.' By the same token, this thing would not have gotten off the ground without Fred," Mann said. "In my mind, it's not who was there first but who had the ability to make this happen. And I have no doubt in my mind if we had not had the support of Fred, it would not have been done to the extent it's been done today."

Honoring Marquis

So went the thinking of county commissioners, who brainstormed individually for a way to honor the man who stayed in office three times longer than the national average for county administrators.

Their thoughts always came back to the Pinellas Trail, undoubtedly Marquis' favorite project.

Renaming the trail would take a vote of the commission. But Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law prohibits elected officials from privately discussing items that may later come before them for a vote.

So secretly coming up with a fitting farewell gift for Marquis posed a problem for the five county commissioners. Eventually, the process unfolded like this:

Commissioner Bob Stewart thought naming the Pinellas Trail after Marquis seemed like the perfect gift.

So he went to County Attorney Susan Churuti and asked how he could float the idea to other commissioners without violating the sunshine law. Churuti suggested he send a memo to each commissioner through interoffice mail _ since the commissioners' mail is public record, the discussion would be above-board, she reasoned.

But before Stewart could send the memo, Churuti mentioned the idea to Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who volunteered to write a proclamation announcing the renaming of the trail in Marquis' honor.

That proclamation was circulated through the commissioners' mail, Churuti said.

If each commissioner signed the proclamation, that would indicate that each approved of the plan, she said. Each one did.

"If somebody had asked for it, it would've been a public record, but nobody asked for it," she said. "It's a hard thing to do something in the sunshine and still surprise the county administrator."

Commissioners did not want to place the item on the Aug. 29 agenda because then Marquis would see it. But because it was not on the agenda, commissioners could not officially vote on it at that meeting either.

Instead, they will vote to rename the trail at their 9:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday. The public is, of course, invited to the meeting on the fifth floor of the County Courthouse, 315 Court St.

Valery plans to speak against naming the Pinellas Trail for Marquis, but he is resigned to the fact that it will probably happen anyway. He said if the item had been on the Aug. 29 agenda, he would have shown up then to oppose it.

"I disagree with what they're doing. I'm upset about what they're doing," he said. "But I'm not going to try to rally support."

After all the hoopla at the last commission meeting, renaming the trail is virtually a done deal. Commissioners said they are sorry their decision upsets Valery, but they have no plans to change their minds.

"I think that's something we have the prerogative to do, to surprise someone who's given that many years of public service," Commissioner Sallie Parks said. "Nobody pretended this was (Marquis') idea, but he kept the agenda moving forward so that things are happening today that weren't even dreamed of. I think it's very appropriate, and I have no second thoughts about naming it after Fred Marquis."

Said Stewart: "I don't think you can do something of this magnitude without finding someone, somewhere who will object for one reason or another. I think there would have to be some highly extenuating circumstances for the board to alter its decision."

Harris said he might ask county officials to research Valery's involvement in the trail and perhaps honor him in some way. Todd said she was disappointed that a decision like this would cause dissension.

The trail "symbolized to us the unification of the county, and frankly that's a concept Fred always stood for, the county working together," Todd said. "I have so much respect for Bert (Valery). He is a really wonderful man and one of the really stalwart supporters of the trail. I feel so badly he feels this way, but I just hope he will come to understand the thinking behind the decision."

_ Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.