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Legislators should revoke Weeki Wachee's charter

Hernando County's state legislative delegation may be the last best hope for those who believe it is time to rein in the Weeki Wachee City Council.

The legislators, Rep. David Russell Jr., R-Brooksville, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, Charles Dean, R-Inverness, and Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, are scheduled to convene a public hearing Wednesday in Brooksville to discuss amending or revoking the city's charter. The review comes at the request of the Hernando County Commission, which has been locked in a months-long legal battle with the incorporated city of nine residents regarding the acquisition of Florida Water Services.

A judge ruled in December that Weeki Wachee had no legitimate interest in taking over the utility, which provides water and sewer service to most of Spring Hill. The costs of that conflict have been significant, both for the city and the county. At last count, Weeki Wachee owes almost $200,000 to its attorneys, which is twice its annual budget, and there are more bills that have not been submitted. Costs to county taxpayers have not been tallied yet.

On Wednesday, legislators have three options. They can do nothing, revoke the city's charter, or amend it.

Of those options, only one guarantees that the City Council's reckless behavior will end, and the interests of the public will be protected from future encumbrances: Dissolution of the city charter.

Consider these occurences since the city assumed ownership of the roadside attraction last year:

+ The City Council, a three-member board made up of the manager of the attraction, her mother and a contracted employee, offered $53-million to buy Florida Water, ostensibly to protect the spring that feeds the Weeki Wachee River.

+ To generate money for that legal fight, the council doubled property taxes for businesses so it could afford to pay its attorneys.

+ While raising taxes and launching a grass-roots campaign to raise money to help make repairs to the deteriorating facilities, the city did not cash about $17,000 in checks issued by the county Tax Collector.

+ Earlier, while allegedly in the throes of a financial crisis, city officials attended a convention in Las Vegas and purchased tickets for employees to attend Tampa Bay Buccaneers' football games.

+ The city withheld zoning approval for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the spring and leases it to the city, and the Hernando County School Board to construct an environmental center to educate students about the river's ecosystem and habitat.

+ The city briefly used public property to urge passing motorists to vote for a County Commission candidate in the upcoming elections.

+ Mayor Robyn Anderson has been the subject of complaints to the state ethics commission about possible conflicts of interest because she derives tangible benefits, including free rent, by virtue of her elected position. One complaint has been dismissed; another is pending.

Over this period of time, the lines between the public and private interests of the city have continued to blur. City Attorney Joe Mason maintains the attraction is a separate entity from the government, and that its records are not open to the public. However, that issue is decidedly gray, not black-and-white, as evidenced by an ambiguous opinion by Florida's Attorney General about whether it is unconstitutional for a municipality to acquire the debt of a private, for-profit business.

Swiftmud, landlord to the city-owned attraction, has been very patient and forgiving in its dealings with Weeki Wachee. It would appear that members of the agency's appointed governing board are either unable or unwilling to recognize just how unwieldy and inherently problematic the situation has become.

Thirty-seven years ago, the state legislature incorporated Weeki Wachee. The purpose was to sidestep a requirement that only incorporated municipalities could advertise on billboards along state highways. The city's origins are steeped in gimmickry and that mindset thrives today, with too many of city leaders' antics designed to generate publicity and drum up business.

The attraction has used the city as a crutch to further its money-making motives, and it is time for elected state representatives to acknowledge that skewed relationship and correct it once and for all.

If the attraction is as economically viable as city officials have claimed, it can survive without being incorporated.

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