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    Hassle, mystery, duty: Voting views vary

    Many in Largo don't plan to vote in Tuesday's municipal election because of a lack of information, connectedness.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002


    LARGO -- In a city that has earned the distinction of having the lowest voter turnout in Pinellas County year after year, the Largo Times set out to find the answers to two simple queries:

    Do you intend to vote in Tuesday's municipal election?

    Why, or why not?

    Many said no. Others said yes. But all answered with questions of their own.

    Who is running?

    Where are their fliers?

    What are their issues?

    Hold on, you mean there's an election Tuesday?

    Charles Graul is running against incumbent Pat Burke for Seat 1. Charlie Harper is challenging incumbent Mary Laurance for Seat 2. Winners serve a three-year term, in which they work with six other commissioners to decide how the city will spend an annual budget of nearly $90-million.

    But in this city of about 70,000, few seem to care much about who will fill the commission seats.

    Some blame the candidates.

    "I see a couple of placards, but I don't think they do a good job letting us know about them," said Mary O'Seep.

    O'Seep, who is retired, voted last year. But she won't be voting this year. She laments that she will be out of town Tuesday. As for others, she said many people grow complacent with their leaders when they are unaware of what is going on.

    "People vote when there is something going on, and they have something to say about it," she said. "Otherwise, they sit back and let it go."

    Last year, barely 6 percent of the city's 39,857 registered voters showed up, just 2,413 people. City officials say the average has been about 7 percent.

    To find out why, a reporter spent a day interviewing dozens of residents in front of the Largo Public Library, area supermarkets and at the Largo Mall.

    Kieran O'Shea, 70, said he has no idea who is running.

    He plans to read up on the four candidates over the weekend, then vote. He is happy with the current efforts made by the city government, and the retired New York City police officer would like to meet the candidates personally.

    "I don't see these people coming out and knocking on doors, or shaking hands at the library or supermarket," said O'Shea.

    "They ought to be out with chairs, generating interest with John Q Public. Maybe they feel they have been doing well without us."

    One problem is finding where to vote. This year Largo reduced the number of polling locations from 18 to 6. Many say that just creates more confusion.

    "If they used the cultural center and the library, they'd get a lot more people," commented Paula Knowles, 52, who said she's ashamed she hasn't voted since moving to Largo three years ago from Massachusetts.

    "Until I moved here, I never missed a local, national or primary," said Knowles. She had become accustomed to the fall election. In Florida, the municipal elections are in February and March. She wishes she was better informed about where to vote, and when.

    "Little things like that make a difference when you have a transient population, or a population that has lived somewhere else."

    For some, more information wouldn't help. They see voting as a burden.

    "I feel it is too much of a hassle," said Meka Zigmunt, 25, who won't be voting. She needs to focus on her three boys, Tyler, 3, Anthony, 6, and Christian, 4. "I have to drag three kids wherever I go."

    Others see it as their duty.

    "I vote because I think it is a privilege," said Josephine McKenna, 57, who will vote Tuesday if for nothing else than to set an example for her three grandchildren: Victoria Walker, 10, Paula Walker, 8, and James David Walker, 7.

    "If we vote as adults, these kids will understand it's important, and maybe they will follow suit."

    Pete Palmieri understands that well. His 9-year-old daughter goes in the booth with him every year and loves the experience.

    But he also understands why people might not vote. They feel disconnected, he said.

    "Maybe they are just busy with their lives and they don't think it matters who is in there," said Palmieri, 41, who runs a moving company and proudly shows off the American flag on his motorcycle.

    But he said people need to pay attention.

    For years he never bothered. Then slowly, he became involved. A few years ago, he met with state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, to discuss the helmet option law for motorcyclists. He hates wearing one when it is hot out. She listened, Palmieri said, and the law was changed.

    Now, he votes every year, and he can name his current city commissioners off the top of his head.

    "The leaders are willing to listen," he said. "I've been getting stuff in the mail and looking it over. I haven't made up my mind yet."

    -- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com

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