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Some biting comments spice up the season

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Josh Wooten was talking to members of a citizens' group on Wednesday when the lightning struck.

Wooten was building a case that the current group of county commissioners, of which he is one, anticipates issues rather than just reacting to them. This board is pro-active, he said, a stark contrast with past commissions that didn't see the train wrecks ahead.

Hitting his stride, Wooten brought up the Halls River Retreat condo project, one of the most controversial issues the commissioners have faced in years. It has it all: varying views on how the county's growth plan should be interpreted, a boatload of environmental concerns, hints of sinister backroom deals, and now lawsuits. It's a mess.

It's also something that could have been avoided, he said.

"If I had been a commissioner for 12 years, I would have seen it coming," said Wooten, a freshman on the board, alluding to senior Commissioner Gary Bartell.

"And," he added, "I wouldn't have had my wife sue the commission to save my political butt."

Wooten said some members of the Citrus County Council hissed at his slap at Bartell and his wife, Joanne, who is party to one of two lawsuits filed against the county over the condo project.

Having not been at the meeting myself, I asked Wooten on Thursday about his comments. Not only did he not back away from them, he elaborated.

"(Bartell) should have known there was a problem a long time ago," Wooten said. "That was my point: He should have brought it up back then. Only when 300 people stormed in did Gary get involved.

"It's great to pound your chest and say you're the savior of the world. But if you're going to pound the other commissioners over the head, take responsibility for not having done anything up to then. You've been there for 12 years."

Wooten paused long enough to give Bartell some credit for his work. "Gary's a talented guy, and the board is better off because he's there. He's taken on issues that are very tedious; he's tenacious." Then, he resumed his critique.

"His tactics leave a lot to be desired," Wooten said. "The board has already voted, so let's move on, unless you get another swing at the ball. You cast your vote, now let the process work. And if you do try to manipulate the process, at least acknowledge you should've looked at the issue closer and done more 10 years ago."

Wooten couldn't help but aim a shot or two at Mrs. Bartell as well.

"When I'm sitting there in Lecanto and seeing my colleague's wife handing documents to an attorney who is suing the county, and the developers' attorneys are looking at each other and wondering what kind of county is this, well, I gotta wonder what's going on. The process is kind of scary."

Wooten said that Mrs. Bartell "has every right to get involved. I admire her." But he agreed that, with the exception of a former first lady, you don't often see an elected official's spouse dive into public policy.

"Is Joanne Bartell now the Hillary Clinton of Citrus County?" he said.

Ouch!

Bartell, reached later, chuckled at the comments.

"He needs to take that up with Joanne," Bartell said. "I'm not going to stoop to the level of personal attacks. It's not becoming of a commissioner.

"It's the political season," he said. "I stand on my record. If he wants to make it personal, fine. I'm only going to address issues before the county commission."

Wooten disagreed even with that, saying that Bartell is doing his share of commenting on the Halls River project, but only in private. "He says it to anyone who will listen," Wooten said. "I have the (guts) to say it in public."

As for Wooten's claim that he was late to see the problems behind the condo project, Bartell gave a brief history lesson.

"This issue of the Homosassa River and pollution started long before I went into office," he said. "The county was trying to sewer that area for many years.

"The intent was solely to take care of the existing problem. That was the theme of 10 town meetings we held to correct the problems of the past. It was never to entice development. We were confident from what county staff and the state agencies told us that the comprehensive plan would define how development would occur in the area."

Wooten said that's why he brought the issue up to the Citrus County Council, an umbrella group of civic activists, some of whom years ago warned that running sewer lines into that area would lead to more development. He wanted to congratulate them for their foresight.

"That's a red meat group," Wooten said. "I told them to stay involved. It was a great speech, if I say so myself."

Some of the bite in Wooten's comments stems from the criticism he has felt for casting the deciding vote to approve the Halls River project.

"I have been vilified in the press, but I have broad shoulders," he said. "I just ask people to look at my record. I came to this job to get some things accomplished, and I have done that. I have a hell of a good record," he said.

Wooten compared his record to that of one of his loudest critics, community activist Chris Lloyd. "What has Chris Lloyd ever done?" he said.

There's one more thing that Wooten can add to his list of accomplishments: He's gotten the local political season off to a lively start. And, unlike Bartell, he's not even up for re-election this year.

Strap on your asbestos britches, boys and girls. It's gonna be a scorcher.

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