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Oldsmar caught in morass of vocal minority's making

Published Nov. 11, 2001|Updated Sep. 10, 2005

Jerry Beverland was running for mayor of Oldsmar earlier this year when he made this statement about his qualifications in an interview:

"I'm a leader. Now, I may not lead you to the right place, but I'm a leader. I may lead you to a hole where you can't get out, but I led you there."

Is that what Mayor Beverland did last week to the city of Oldsmar _ led it to a hole it can't get out of?

Time will provide the answer. But there is no doubt that this small city faces one of the biggest challenges in its history. And its officials are likely to get very familiar with the inside of a courtroom.

Some people say that what Beverland and two of his cohorts on the Oldsmar City Council did last week was foolish and put the city's future at risk. Others say the three acted as true representatives of the people who elected them.

I was left wondering, how far should an elected official go to keep a political promise?

The Wilson Co. of Tampa wants to build a 270-unit rental apartment complex for people of low and moderate incomes on 27 vacant acres in Oldsmar. The company has built 26 such complexes around the state and has a reputation for making them nice, with lots of amenities.

The land is near some relatively new subdivisions of moderately priced houses. Those residents feared the complex would bring crime, traffic and overcrowded schools. They organized the Oldsmar Community Alliance and lobbied candidates running for the City Council to join their cause. Three of those candidates _ Beverland, Marcelo Caruso and Don Bohr _ indicated they opposed the project. All three were elected, with higher than normal turnouts by the neighborhoods near the project site.

When the project came up for a vote in May, Beverland and Caruso voted no, but Bohr joined two other council members to vote yes. The project could be built, right? Wrong. The city had cleverly attached a condition to the approval that made it almost impossible to build. A judge later threw out the condition.

Then last month the Pinellas Planning Council staff, in a routine review of the plans, discovered the city had calculated the allowable density on the land in a way that violated county rules and gave the developer 63 units too many. The County Commission, acting in the belief that the city really wanted the project built, passed a resolution that would allow it under a bonus density plan for much-needed affordable housing projects. The city merely had to accept the resolution.

By now, multiple lawsuits had been filed over the project, the neighborhood had called on Gov. Jeb Bush's office for help, and a recall petition against one City Council member who supports the project was circulating. The Wilson Co. also was hinting that the federal government might sue the city and individual City Council members over violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination in housing on the basis of, among other things, race and familial status.

In this confusing, roiling legal morass, the City Council of little Oldsmar sat down Tuesday night to decide whether to accept the county's resolution.

The room was filled with neighborhood residents who still wanted the project killed. Council members Dave Tilki and Brian Michaels nevertheless pleaded with their colleagues to accept the county resolution, allow the much-needed affordable housing to be built, and avoid the risk of millions of dollars in actual and punitive damages. The pleas went unheeded.

When Beverland asked for a motion to reject the County Commission's resolution, his two cohorts, Caruso and Bohr, sat mute _ maybe confused by all the legal jargon, maybe wanting to avoid blame if the city got sued. So an agitated but determined Beverland, who as presiding officer is unable to make motions, tossed his gavel to the vice mayor and made the motion himself. Bohr and Caruso voted with him to reject the county's resolution.

The residents in the audience applauded, but Beverland told them, "You need to understand that there are consequences of this. Because somewhere down the line, you may not feel like clapping for this."

Clearly, Beverland and other council members understood the damage that could be done by throwing up a roadblock to stop the project. They knew, because their attorneys had told them what consequences were possible: lawsuits, fines, punitive damages, personal liability, routine monitoring by the federal government if the city were found guilty of discrimination. Yet they did it anyway, knowing that if they lose in court, the cost could be high enough to damage the city's ability to deliver services.

Whether the city ultimately wins or loses, the dispute raises some interesting questions. To whom does an elected official owe allegiance? Is it to the voters who marked that candidate's name on the ballot? Is it to the noisy group that shows up at a government meeting demanding its way? Or is it to the entire community _ those who voted as well as those who didn't, those who speak out and those who don't?

This was not a case of majority rule, because the residents who oppose the Wilson Co. project are a minority of the city's population. Yet they were able to bring about a decision that ultimately could harm everyone in the city.

It seems to me we are better off when we elect men and women who are independent thinkers, who have the intellectual capacity to study an issue from all angles, and then possess the courage to do what benefits the most people.

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