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A Times Editorial

Steve Simon for County Commission

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

Four years ago, neophyte politician Steve Simon promised to "freshen up" the Pasco County Commission, a vague reference to a stale majority that had allowed private interests to supersede the public's.

Following his successful election, Simon did just that in helping rid county government of the pungent political wheeling and dealing. His intellect, energy and sense of fairness brought a new philosophy to the board and helped set the agenda of better preparing the county for continued growth while attempting to bolster the quality of life.

Simon pushed creation of a Citizens Ordinance Review Committee, which later replaced the Land Development Review Committee, a developer-friendly body with undue influence over county land-use ordinances. He worked with the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) to devise controls for short-term rental properties in residential neighborhoods. And he flashed early signs of leadership by successfully advocating a cut in the interest rate charged to property owners under the county's paving assessment program.

Those accomplishments alone might merit strong consideration of another term, but Simon and the commission as a whole moved to improve the county's appearance through a series of ordinances focusing on aesthetics. It banned new billboards, regulated roadside bus bench advertising, approved tree protections, required more thorough landscaping from developers, and ordered a rewrite of its sign controls.

Prettying up Pasco is just part of the effort. The board, answering citizen challenges to its comprehensive land-use plan, adopted wildlife protections and redesigned its planning process to enhance input from people outside the development community. It approved new impact fees to pay for school construction and to add parks, and it is expected to do likewise in early September when a library impact fee is scheduled for a final vote.

Simon, a 50-year-old former instructor of real estate law, has been able to negotiate reasonable solutions to controversial land-use issues such as the rezoning of the Oakstead development, and he helped defeat an ill-advised fire fee plan that would have benefited the wealthy but unfairly burdened poor residents.

If re-elected, Simon wants to continue the board's current direction by reworking the county's comprehensive land-use plan to add less intensive housing categories.

If we have a criticism of Simon, it has been the political caution that has guided his decisionmaking process as the election draws closer. For instance, he immediately objected when a renewed call for a gasoline tax increase surfaced in February, but retreated when the other four members of the board supported at least a 1-cent increase.

Those considerations are overshadowed by his impressive record as county commissioner. Simon, a Democrat, is opposed by fellow Democrat and former two-term commissioner, David "Hap" Clark Jr., 80, who epitomizes all that was wrong with the commission before Simon's arrival. Since there is no Republican candidate, all registered voters can cast ballots in the Sept. 10 open primary to determine the next District 3 commissioner.

Clark, who served from 1992-2000, did not respond to interview requests nor return a questionnaire on his platform. Too bad. He has plenty for which to answer.

Clark opened the door for the three-year period of commissioners looking the other way while Clyde Hobby, their lobbyist/water lawyer, pulled strings to benefit his private clients. Clark, also represented by Hobby in negotiations with gambling interests leasing his riverfront property, made the motion to circumvent County Administrator John Gallagher and hire Hobby as the county's highly paid lobbyist in 1995.

Over the next three years, the commission was most notable for turning a blind eye to Hobby clients getting preferential treatment. The result was construction of a high-rise apartment complex for the elderly in a flood zone; county purchase of Oakley Boulevard, a private road in poor condition, for $400,000; and an attempt to get county-blessing of a multimillion-dollar financing package for a privately owned utility.

In an absurd public defense, Clark championed Hobby, saying this newspaper was conspiring to remove the lobbyist to advance Pinellas County's water interests.

Sadly, Clark's shortcomings aren't limited to helping his chums get fat. He and Simon served together for two years, and though they rarely disagreed on final votes, Clark often became an obstacle to progress. He flip-flopped on the need for a school impact fee and attempted to stymie the billboard ban. He retreated from his one genuine idea -- limiting water scooters near Anclote River park -- after getting an earful from the boating community.

Voters have a clear choice. Simon is a hard-working, forward-thinking commissioner, a good government advocate who gets things gone. Clark was a do-nothing public servant only looking out for his buddies' interests. Returning him to office would be a grave mistake.

The Times strongly recommends District 3 Commissioner Steve Simon for re-election on Sept. 10.

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