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Public should be involved before a boulder starts rolling

By the time most decisions of a local government attract a public protest, it's late in the game. The deal is practically done.

This is not because government is run by people who don't want to listen.

But the government runs according to its own step-by-step, bureaucratic process. It's like a large rolling boulder that slowly but inevitably picks up momentum. The further it's traveled, the harder it is to stop.

An idea starts out as an obscure agenda item at a city council or county commission meeting. It gets studied. A consultant makes recommendations. Maybe there's a sparsely attended public hearing.

By the time the proposal is due for a vote, the government is invested in the idea. There's a formal, detailed "staff recommendation."

The government often sees the final vote of the elected officials as almost a closing ritual, whereas the public sees it as the act of decision. Last-minute public opposition is treated almost as an annoyance.

Nowhere is this more true, or more frustrating, than in decisions that involve the use of land.

How many times have you seen it? Somebody wants to build something. The neighbors don't like it. They show up at city hall or the county headquarters with petitions and signs.

But they're often too late. The real decisions were made years in advance, when their city or county drew up a "comprehensive plan," and a zoning map, to say what kind of stuff could go where.

Do you remember the Wal-Mart that Tarpon Springs approved last year? That was the official explanation there. The city said that Tarpon Springs' comp plan and zoning map already allowed it, so there wasn't much choice. (The opponents are still fighting that argument in court.)

The earlier the citizens get involved, the better a chance they have.

Over the past few days, a large number of residents of Pinellas County, of the greater Tampa Bay area, and even of other parts of Florida and other states, called or wrote the Pinellas County Commission to oppose the county's plans for Fort De Soto Park.

The county listened.

On Tuesday, the county staff withdrew plans for a larger restaurant and other expanded vendor operations at the park, and said it would draw up a new plan closer to the existing, more modest level of park concessions.

"It was a pretty darn clear mandate to back off," Commissioner Bob Stewart observed. Few local issues in memory had drawn such vigorous opposition.

This protest worked precisely because it came early enough. Indeed, according to the county staff, it was too early for public objections because the negotiations were still ongoing and nothing had been "decided."

Yet the truth is that the boulder was already rolling. The real "decision" had been made from the time the county issued its invitation for bidders, with a long description of the things the county wanted.

If the plan had gotten to the point of a settled negotiation and a written contract in front of the County Commission, it would have been much tougher to stop.

Steve Spratt, the county administrator - whom I consider to be a hard-working, smart and impressive public servant - said that my columns had distorted the issue and whipped up public sentiments.

I don't think so. Heck, the county folks even got to write their own column in the paper explaining what they wanted to do. They asked the public: Hey, wouldn't it be great to get a meal and a drink there? And the public replied: No.

Folks accuse the newspaper all the time of whipping stuff up, yet it rarely produces thousands of calls and e-mails to the County Commission. The power to whip up an issue out of nothing is much exaggerated.

Nope. This happened because large numbers of people love Fort De Soto as it is, and enough of them loved it enough to do something about it. They get all the credit. It would not have happened without them. Each person who called or wrote made a difference.