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In close vote, Fowler remains board chairman

Lee Cloward, a resident from the Inverness Highlands, sat in the audience at Tuesday's County Commission meeting and shook his head. Once again, the board was split 3-2.

Except this time it wasn't a controversial condo project or the county seat debate. It was the normally routine task of passing the gavel from one commission chairman to the next.

Usually the first vice chair from the previous year becomes the chairman the following year. That would put Commissioner Gary Bartell next in line for the chairmanship.

But after Commissioner Vicki Phillips nominated him Tuesday at the board's annual reorganization session, Commissioner Josh Wooten offered his own nomination: a second year for Commission Chairman Jim Fowler.

"I think this is the first time we've ever had two people nominated for the same office," Commissioner Roger Batchelor said, chuckling at the board's quandary.

In the end, Batchelor joined the 3-2 majority retaining Fowler as chairman for another year.

To Cloward, the vote signaled the divisions on the board are running as deep as ever.

"I want to welcome the triumvirate back," Cloward told the commission with a hint of sarcasm. "The voters have spoken (by re-electing Fowler Nov. 5) and we will have at least another two years where it will be a 3-2 vote."

By a 5-0 vote, Bartell was retained as first vice chair. The second vice chair seat passed from Phillips to Wooten, also on a 3-2 vote.

Wooten has publicly criticized Bartell for issues arising from the Halls River Retreat project, which commissioners approved in February along the same 3-2 lines.

He questioned Bartell's judgment in notarizing a lawsuit in which a group of Homosassa residents _ including Bartell's wife, Joanne _ sued the county for approving the condo project. (Mrs. Bartell's signature was notarized by someone else.)

More recently, he suggested Bartell was somehow involved in the ethics complaints that Homosassa resident Jim Bitter lodged against Wooten. Bartell called the charge "absolutely asinine."

But Wooten said he nominated Fowler for chairman Tuesday as a compliment to Fowler, not a slight to Bartell.

"It's not a poor reflection on Gary as much as it's a good reflection on Jim's leadership skills," Wooten told the Times. "In his past year as chairman, (Fowler has) moved meetings along, had vision and leadership and made the tough decisions."

In other news:

+ Florida Water wars. Commissioners approved a set of conditions under which they could support the pending $507-million sale of Florida Water Services to a pair of Panhandle towns.

The requests range from giving Citrus County control over the rates to allowing the county to someday buy the 12 systems in Sugarmill Woods, Citrus Springs, Pine Ridge and several other communities.

County officials will provide the conditions during conflict resolution negotiations with the Panhandle towns of Gulf Breeze and Milton.

Commissioners were divided 3-2, however, in their endorsement of the Florida Governmental Utility Authority's competing proposal to buy the utility giant. Bartell and Phillips said it was inappropriate for the county to endorse the FGUA proposal while trying to negotiate an agreeable deal with the Panhandle towns.

+ U.S. 19 development. The county staff is recommending denial of Donald Ball's request to rezone 6.7 acres in Homosassa from mixed use to general commercial, saying the change would bring more intense growth to a hurricane-prone area where the water table sits near the surface.

So, Bartell asked, why didn't the county staff take a similar position on the Halls River Retreat project located on a nearby tract, which is also mixed use and subject to the same environmental constraints?

"There's a 180-degree flip-flop from a staff recommendation on this property for mixed use than there was for Halls River Retreat on mixed use," Bartell said.

County planners say there's one big difference, however: The Halls River Retreat site was already zoned for mixed use, which planners said could accommodate the 54-unit condo project. Ball is seeking a rezoning that would allow more intense use on his U.S. 19 property just north of the Bella Villa Mobile Home Park.

"If we are going to compare this issue with one we've decided in the past, it contaminates this issue for this applicant," Fowler said.

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or