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Voter roll fattens with hotel folk

The balance of power in Weeki Wachee appears ready to shift to the east side of U.S. 19.

Since its inception in 1966, the city of mermaids has been controlled by people who live on the highway's west side _ at the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction. More often than not, the park's general manager has also been the city's mayor.

But a politically motivated influx of new voters _ all claiming to reside at the Best Western Resort Weeki Wachee _ has tipped the scales in a new direction.

The voter roll now reads: Hotel residents 13; merfolk 7.

At least half of the 13 newly registered voters have some tie to Blue Stone Real Estate Construction and Development Corp. _ the James DeMaria-owned company whose subsidiaries include the Best Western. Another new voter is DeMaria's cousin.

Jerry Harris, the general manager of Blue Stone and one of Weeki Wachee's newest voters, said the immigration is intended to put people in position who can undo the damage city commissioners have wrought in the past six months.

As Harris sees it, that includes a "frivolous" lawsuit attempting to take over the Florida Water Services utility system in Spring Hill and a doubling of city property taxes to pay for it. But those aren't the only reasons that Harris and others are fuming.

The three city commissioners who passed the tax _ Mayor Robyn Anderson, Julie Rivers and Angela Weiss _ live in cottages owned by the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction and thus are not subject to paying the property taxes.

Meanwhile, the businesses paying the taxes near the junction of U.S. 19 and State Road 50 are owned by people who live outside the city and have no say at the ballot box. The new political reality should change that.

Finally, Harris is concerned about how much money the lawsuit could cost taxpayers across Hernando County, which bought the Florida Water system in Spring Hill this fall.

The pending lawsuit _ now on appeal _ has thwarted the county's effort to replenish its cash reserves, costing the county money from lost interest. An agreement to settle the lawsuit has not been completed.

"As a citizen of Hernando County, I felt the county was being held hostage," Harris said. "When one or two or three or four people have the ability to change the taxation at their own whims to pay for actions at their own whims, then I think it is time to stand up and do something about it."

Exactly what that means is anybody's guess. But Weeki Wachee is already at a crucial moment in its history.

Four local lawmakers will meet Wednesday in Brooksville to discuss the Hernando County Commission's request that the city of Weeki Wachee be dissolved. An alternative likely to be considered is merely capping the city's tax-raising ability and revoking its power to condemn or annex property.

Harris said he would be happy if the legislative delegation wished to disband the city. The next scheduled election is not until 2006. And there are no plans for a recall. But even if the city continues as now, Harris said, the new voting bloc will be heard.

"We just want to be in a position to take an action should one be necessary," he said.

DeMaria did not return calls Friday. And the other new voters contacted by the Times declined to comment. But the realignment has been taking place quietly over the past two months as the new voters came into the county elections office and either changed their address or registered for the first time.

Weeki Wachee city attorney Joe Mason said the shift came as a surprise to him, even though Harris had said back in September such a revolt might occur.

"What you are telling me is news to me. I'll have to take a look at it," Mason said.

Mayor Anderson could not be reached for comment.

The practical aspects of the arrangement with the hotel are somewhat of a mystery. Harris says he plans to continue to maintain his home in Spring Hill, but will also meet the legal demands of his newly declared Weeki Wachee residency. He would not elaborate.

Harris said DeMaria pressured no one to join the cause, even though the new residents include himself and his wife, two Blue Stone construction superintendents, an employee of a Blue Stone subsidiary and the general manager of DeMaria's hotel company.

Legally, Florida law is vague on the issue of what constitutes residency as far as voting is concerned. It can be established in a single day and largely depends on a voter's intent, said Jenny Nash, press secretary for the Florida Department of State.

When people fill out voter registration forms, they sign an oath saying the information they provided is accurate. Local supervisor of elections offices accept that at face value, and the only place it can be challenged is in court, Nash said.

Mason, whose own Brooksville residency was unsuccessfully challenged in court a decade ago, agrees that where you lay your head at night does not conclusively determine residency. But he said the transient nature of a hotel raises questions. He is also curious about whether any of the new voters have a homestead exemption on a home outside of Weeki Wachee.

"We'll have to investigate," Mason said.

_ Robert King can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

A house divided

Weeki Wachee's voting population is now split into two blocs _ those living west of U.S. 19 on property owned by the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction and those living east of the highway at the Best Western Resort Weeki Wachee.

Voters listing their address at the Best Western, 6172 Commercial Way:

Michael DeMaria

Debbie Dunsmore

Lance Emerson

George J. Garrity Jr.

Elke B. Harris

Jerry F. Harris

Edith M. Jackson

David R. Lee Jr.

Joseph G. Maresca

Oliver L. Noel

Michael S. Peek

Paul M. Rose

Dorothy P. Woodbury

Voters listing their address at Weeki Wachee Springs, 6131 Commercial Way

Robyn A. Anderson

Michael A. Anderson

Angela Weiss

Robert M. Weiss

Wanda B. Grey

Sean L. Reynolds

Shanna R. Reynolds

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