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Towns ask: How much government is enough?

The less-government mantra is getting a workout this municipal election season.

Slates of candidates in two of Pasco's smallest cities are seeking to disengage from their local governments. If you can't beat city hall, dissolve it.

That is the familiar case in Port Richey. But it is a new issue in St. Leo, the tiny town known mostly as the home of Saint Leo University. St. Leo incorporated in 1891, when monks founded it as a Catholic colony that included a monastery and elementary school.

The population is listed at 1,066 people, but that counts much of the full-time student body at the university. Full-time residents are significantly fewer. In 2002, registered voters numbered 196.

The town rarely has a contested election or lively civic debate. Traditionally, two of its five town commissioners are members of the religious communities there. But Mayberry met suburbia five years ago when the upscale, 900-home Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club developed.

"Two issues really bubbling across Florida are annexation and incorporation," said Susan McManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida. "Growth is the thread that weaves the two together and it affects the politics of the area.

"Increasingly, because of growth, you have old-timers versus newcomers. You don't have D's and R's, anymore. You have growth and antigrowth."

At Lake Jovita, 106 property owners on the western edge of the development are inside the town limits. As such, they are assessed $2 per $1,000 of property value in city taxes. That's about 11 percent of their annual property tax obligation, or roughly $500 of a $4,700 tax bill.

The services in return include garbage pickup and enhanced police protection. The town pays $72,036 to the Pasco Sheriff's Office as part of an agreement for two full-time deputies to patrol St. Leo and San Antonio. The Sheriff's Office has said previously the on-duty deputy patrols the town proper inside Lake Jovita two to three times each evening.

Neighbors now say the services don't justify the expense. Seventy signatures affixed to a petition call for the area inside Lake Jovita's walls to be emancipated from the town.

It's a sizeable voting bloc. Four years ago, the last time St. Leo had a contested election, voters cast 86 ballots. Incumbent Richard Christmas defeated Lake Jovita resident John Fantone 46 to 39.

Christmas is on the ballot again. Fantone, who won a vacant commission seat in 2003 but did not seek re-election last year, led the petition drive.

Christmas is seeking re-election, as are incumbents Brother James Hallett, the town's mayor, and Sister Donna DeWitt, a commissioner. The three challengers all reside on Woodlands Circle in Lake Jovita. James Gajewski is challenging DeWitt, Erik Pierce is running against Christmas, and R. Drew Dowling is seeking Hallett's seat. The wild card is university student Thomas Tatum, who also is running for the District 1 seat held by DeWitt.

It's an incredible irony. Gajewski, Pierce and Dowling are running in hopes they will have to resign their seats after allowing their neighborhood to escape the local government. If successful, they no longer would be town residents and would be unqualified to serve as commissioners.

The issue in St. Leo centers upon values. Not family. Financial. Political challengers in Port Richey will attempt to cast the referendum question there in the same light. But, as is the case with much of Port Richey's politics, hidden agendas and behind-the-scene personalities are never far from the surface.

Three challengers for Port Richey council seats, Dale Massad, Nancy Britton and Steven O'Neill, all signed a petition seeking a referendum to dissolve the city.

Expect a repeat of previous campaign tactics. The political clique that includes Massad, with the assistance of the Pasco Republican Party, helped oust incumbent Mayor Eloise Taylor and re-elect Council member Phyllis Grae last year with a campaign that ostracized Taylor as a trial attorney responsible for hefty legal fees for the city.

That same strategy might not be executed so easily this time, however. Massad, a former council member, watched (cheered?) as then City Manager Vince Lupo fired the police chief illegally in 2003. An arbitrator later ordered the city to rehire William Downs as the police department's second in command, give him back wages and benefits of more than $90,000 and pay his legal fees.

Anticipate the police force to be the leading issue for incumbent Council members Fred Miller, Bill Bennett and Jim Priest. Voters previously rejected a council decision to disband the city's police dispatching service. Priest, who wasn't in office at the time, championed that ballot initiative fearing the council's maneuver was a precursor to dissolving the police department. Likewise, city voters rejected a referendum 11 years ago to merge the city with New Port Richey, largely because of the desired autonomy and the security benefits from a hometown police force.

"I expect to stay with a winner," Miller said of a campaign platform emphasizing local police service.

Why not?

Less isn't always more when it comes to public safety.

Reach C.T. Bowen at or at (727) 869-6239.