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WHERE HAS ALL THE COURAGE GONE?

This might seem like old news, but it turns out there was officially no moral courage in Hillsborough County this year.

Or, at least, there were no takers for the Moral Courage Award, a sometimes controversial, always interesting honor considered the county's most prestigious citizen award.

The award was created 17 years ago to recognize those who show "exceptional ethical behavior" and "moral courage" by challenging government and making things better. It can go to the kind of tireless activists, whistleblowers and gadflies who don't miss a meeting, who pore over public records and know the most boring details of landfills, budgets or water supply. They're people who get told things won't change and who push anyway.

Kind of poetic, a government award for going up against government.

A citizens advisory committee considers applications and sends its picks to the county commission. Where, naturally, things have been known to get contentious.

Past winners include a homemaker who spent years fighting for a cleaner environment, a retiree with an eye for science, a neighborhood crime patrol, a nun. They've awarded a man who fought to keep a historically black golf course under city control and a school district employee who alleged widespread waste and mismanagement.

Schmoozy former mayor Dick Greco, fire-and-brimstone politician Ronda Storms and strip club king Joe Redner were all nominated. Deservedly, none won.

But the biggest brouhaha was last year when the commission renamed the award for Ralph Hughes, a conservative pro-growth millionaire who had given campaign bucks to, you guessed it, commissioners who voted for the renaming. That slap-in-the-face move was undone after the IRS alleged the late Hughes died owing millions in unpaid taxes. Lesson: Best to leave moral courage faceless.

Here's an interesting historical note. The committee used to get 20 or 30 applications a year. Last year, a handful. This time, three. Does this make us less morally courageous, or just more busy?

This year, the award goes to: No one. Not that there weren't allegations of some seriously good things going on out there.

Here's one you don't see every day: Tampa computer programmer Michael Keller, who was in the National Guard, was nominated for his role in reporting torture at Abu Ghraib, according to the application. And, wow. But this obviously didn't happen here, and the committee found him better suited for nomination for the Favorite Sons & Daughters Award for locals of national or international distinction.

The Town & Country Senior Stars - a group of "active, alert and agile seniors," according to their application - worked to help a parks and recreation department facing drastic cuts. The committee thought their efforts made them a better contender for the You've Made A Difference Award. Ditto longtime activist Ellie Montague, nominated for her impressive environmental work.

Bottom line: Nominees did good things. Just not necessarily morally courageous ones.

It makes sense to try to keep clean an award given for keeping government clean. Besides, with our tendency toward trouble in government, there's always next year.

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