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If not careful, the tortoise could lose the race

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

Two-term County Commissioner Pat Mulieri sees herself as a tortoise.

Methodical. Plodding. (Painfully slow moving, critics might say.) But not giving up.

This week she could have been mistaken for another animal. A duck in a shooting gallery. A shot from the left. A bell rings. Spin around. A shot from the right. Another bell rings.

That's just from the commissioners with whom she serves. At the same time, one hunter waited patiently for Election Day and another loaded up in anticipation of the September primary, not even knowing the game he was after.

Make no mistake. Mulieri is the bull's-eye.

Tuesday, she confronted a trio of county commissioners lobbying aggressively for her support for a second, 1-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax to pave dirt roads.

Anne Hildebrand told Mulieri she was accepting mediocrity.

Ding.

Ted Schrader suggested she wasn't interested in meeting east side transportation needs.

Ding.

Peter Altman pushed hardest of all, appealing to Mulieri's track record of seeking paving solutions for poor areas. He finally warned he would be less likely to welcome her ideas on accepting dilapidated roads into the county network without her support for the gas tax hike.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

"Why don't you pick on Simon?" Mulieri finally answered. It wasn't much of a shot back.

Commissioner Steve Simon joined her in voting against the second penny gas tax, denying the mandatory four-vote majority. Simon, at one point, defended himself and Mulieri, saying the discussions portrayed them unfairly as villainous.

No animosity taken, Mulieri said in an interview afterward, and, she said, she believes the "board is more open to suggestions to changing things."

I think maybe she missed Altman's not-so-subtle threat.

Still, Mulieri must feel unappreciated.

In October, the Central Pasco United Soccer Association presented her with a plaque for her hard work on behalf of youth sports. At the same meeting, Mulieri said she told the group that land near the Land O'Lakes jail was available for use as a future practice site. Tuesday, the commission approved a two-year agreement to allow the soccer league to make use of that land.

Yet, sitting in the audience was soccer mom Amye Cox, a Land O'Lakes Democrat, who had filed candidacy papers a few days earlier to challenge Mulieri in the November election. Cox says it was her own perseverance as head of Central Pasco's youth sports coalition that consummated the land deal.

The same day, Thomas Lynn Miller, a retired transportation specialist, filed to challenge Mulieri in the Republican primary. Miller acknowledged he didn't even know the name of his county commissioner until this week, but said the commission is uninterested in residential concerns about the proposed Chancey Road extension near his neighborhood in southeast Pasco.

This was new to Mulieri, who recently met with county administrators and residents in an attempt to answer neighborhood concerns.

Here's a hunch that either Miller or Cox, or both, suddenly find campaign money flowing their way from the development community. Mulieri has been a thorn in its side, advocating more controls on billboards, cellular telephone towers, landscaping, commercial signs, environmental protections and smaller residential developments. But Mulieri also panders to the NIMBY crowd, which sometimes puts her on the short end of 4-1 votes on land-use issues. Other times, she and Simon concur.

"It's what the people want," she frequently reminds other board members.

It plays well. She is beloved in some quarters. Not everywhere. Mulieri wonders about the criticism aimed at her from this space. Here are a few thoughts:

When the Pasco County Commission was at its worst, Mulieri was at her best. She was the lone voice for good government and attempted to buck the dealmaking and political favors being done for a chum of the majority from 1995-98.

Only Hildebrand and Mulieri remain from that period. Recent elections brought Simon, Altman and Schrader, accompanied by new ideas, to the commission. There is an opportunity to make significant progress in maintaining, if not improving upon, the quality of life in Pasco County. But, Mulieri is slow to embrace changes that mean changes in anybody's tax rate.

The emergence of two candidates against Mulieri, when only a token challenger tried four years ago, is indicative some members of the public want progress, too.

And, they are tiring of the tortoise's pace.

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