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Conferees hope to create big public policy blueprint

The first Pinellas American Assembly brings together 137 officials, administrators, pastors and active citizens to formulate a countywide plan.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 15, 2002


For the past few weeks, Ray Neri has found it difficult to get answers from the county government.

"You constantly hear, it seems like in every discussion, 'Well, after the American Assembly, hopefully we'll have that resolved,' " Neri said. "These people think it's this monumental thing."

City governments also are delaying decisions. Seminole, for one, agreed to hold off any annexations until after this week.

The American Assembly, an exercise in public administration conceived by Dwight Eisenhower more than 50 years ago, makes its debut in Pinellas County Thursday through Saturday. The roster and the agenda are thick.

The 137 representatives include elected and appointed officials such as county commissioners and mayors and active citizens such as church pastors and the NAACP branch president.

Don't expect a comprehensive solution over the weekend, said the mayor of Delray Beach, which recently held its third assembly. But the brainstorming will give officials some idea of where residents want to go.

Scheduled for discussion are the possible consolidation of fire service, traffic management and allocation of countywide funds between cities and unincorporated areas.

City types and county types are expected to address the issues that cause friction between them. One of the seven sessions is devoted entirely to annexation.

Earlier this month, when some elected municipal officials gathered to sharpen their Assembly platform, they concluded that county commissioners have a conflict in trying to represent the county as a whole at the same time they represent individuals who live in the unincorporated areas.

The city officials want the county commissioners to pay more attention to the county as a whole rather than "subsidizing the unincorporated areas."

Neri, who will represent unincorporated Lealman at the assembly, objects. Citizens in unincorporated areas pay taxes and deserve and need services, he said. It's the commissioners' duty, he said, to watch out for their constituents in unincorporated Pinellas just like it's the job of elected municipal officials to watch out for their citizens.

Such disputes over basic rights have Neri predicting that many issues may remain unresolved after the 21/2 days of meetings.

Eisenhower established the first American Assembly in 1950 to provide a setting and a technique for bringing diverse people together to discuss important questions.

Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University, and Jim Murley, director of a research center at Florida Atlantic University, are leading the civic exercise this week in Pinellas.

DeHaven-Smith has run 36 such assemblies in Florida and assisted with 16 others.

Delray Beach discussed business and revitalization issues at its first assembly in 1988, Mayor David Schmidt said.

"It did inspire a number of people to want to get involved in the community in some way," Schmidt said.

About 4,000 residents got involved in writing Delray Beach's comprehensive redevelopment plan and even developed a $42-million "wish list" of things they wanted for their city.

When the finance people concluded that amount was unrealistic, the citizens pared the list to a $21-million final plan, then lobbied their neighbors on the idea. Voters ultimately approved a bond referendum to get the revitalization done.

"I think if you've got people who are willing to have an open exchange of ideas and who aren't (close-minded), it can lead you to come up with a framework to solve some problems," Schmidt said.

Leading up to the the Pinellas assembly, a group of 25 citizens has met once or twice a month since early this year.

That committee sought out 150 people from varied backgrounds -- business, government, religion -- who might be willing to serve. Of those, 137 plan to participate.

The committee also settled on the discussion topics: goals and principles for local government; urban service delivery and financing; economic development; annexation; intergovernmental relations; targets of opportunity; and next steps.

Starting Thursday morning, six groups of about 23 members each will go to work. DeHaven-Smith will take notes and compile them into one report that will be handed out first thing Saturday morning. The entire assembly will spend that morning polishing the final report.

Then comes the tough part -- turning the ideas into action.

Housh Ghovaee, owner of Northside Engineering in Clearwater and former president of the Pinellas Park/Mid-County Chamber of Commerce, said his goals as a representative go beyond the assembly.

If the objective is to serve everyone, he said, then people will have to be more open-minded and put aside their petty differences to see how best to benefit all. That could mean giving up some things or even changing codes.

"I think coming in together to share our ideas and putting all the questions and answers in the same hat can positively affect our community, but we really need to understand it and put it into motion," Ghovaee said. "It can't be, let's go have another meeting and go home."

Pinellas American Assembly

The public is invited to observe, but not participate. The assembly will be at Harborview Center, 300 Cleveland St., in downtown Clearwater.

Thursday

10 a.m.-noon, Goals and Principles for Governments

1:15-3 p.m., Urban Service Delivery and Financing

3:15-5 p.m., Economic Development and Community Redevelopment

Friday

8:30-10:15 a.m., Governing Intergovernmental Relations

10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., Annexation

1:15-3 p.m., Targets of Opportunity

3:15-5 p.m., Next Steps

Saturday

A draft policy statement will be available for review from 8 to 9 a.m. followed by a meeting of the full assembly from 9 a.m. to noon.

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