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Confusion blurs independence vote

Fire commissioners say the rejection clearly spelled out what voters wanted, but many think voters may not have understood what independence meant.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Fire commissioners say the people spoke quite clearly Tuesday in rejecting the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District's independence bid, but some aren't sure the voters knew what they were talking about.

"I think people are uninformed," said fire Commissioner Gene Panozzo. "You could tell by the letters to the editor and everything else. They don't understand."

Fire Commissioner Jeffrey Hollander said the people he met who had independence explained to them supported it. Tuesday's vote, he said, makes it clear that the public needs more education on the benefits of independence.

"I believe the great majority of those that were opposed either didn't have proper information or were just not familiar with what independence would do for their fire department and the benefit to them," Hollander said.

Fire Commissioner Tommy Marasciullo said he spent Election Day explaining the issue to voters going into the polls. He found that most were confused. "They had no idea what the word 'independence' meant," he said. "A lot of people thought it was going to raise their taxes."

In the end, nearly 62 percent of Spring Hill voters opposed making the fire district independent of the County Commission, which approves the fire district's budget and retains some oversight of its books.

Independence didn't win a single Spring Hill precinct. The overall margin of defeat was even greater than in 1992, when 53 percent opposed a similar referendum. Only two commissioners were willing to say Tuesday's result was a simple rejection of independence.

"I think people are very comfortable with the present arrangement. I'm not going to insult their intelligence by insinuating otherwise," Richard Martin said.

"I think it is clear, after it has been turned down twice, that the people want oversight of their fire commission," said commission Chairman Bob Kanner.

How soon independence could come back to voters again is debateable.

Marasciullo would like to see independence brought back to voters at the next election, in 2004. Hollander said that's his preference, too. But he said the best timing would be when voters demand independence for themselves -- after a new voter education effort.

Others were less eager to try again soon.

"Ten years later, we haven't gained as much ground as we thought we would have. There's a lot of work to be done," Martin said. "I would be embarrassed as a commissioner to rush back and put this in front of the people."

Several fire commissioners said their independence cause was hurt this year by rape allegations against three Spring Hill firefighters and the media coverage -- particularly that of the St. Petersburg Times -- that ensued.

The Times reported the criticism fire commissioners received for allowing the firefighters to continue working until the matter became public and for comments they made about the woman who made the allegations.

After a lengthy investigation, Seminole County prosecutor Stewart Stone announced Tuesday that his office lacked the evidence needed to file rape charges against the firefighters.

Some fire commissioners said the timing of that announcement -- on Election Day -- was "interesting," to say the least.

"It's very odd that they would come out on the day of election when it's too late to get out to the press," Panozzo said. "I'm sure (it's) something political. But I couldn't put my finger on it. To me there's no excuse for taking so long."

"For some reason," said Kanner, "the prosecutor did not want to muddy the waters during the campaign. I am not happy with the way he did his investigation." Kanner said he was disappointed at not being interviewed by investigators. Without elaborating, he said he had contacted a lawyer about the matter.

Stone said the suggestion of a politically timed announcement was "absurd."

"It's actually amusing," Stone said. "I was waiting for someone to say that. And it's ridiculous. I got the investigator's report on Monday. I took a day to look over it. The decision was made on Tuesday. Election Day had absolutely nothing to do with it. You can quote me on that. It's absolutely ridiculous."

Some commissioners say their failure to gain independence has some lessons to offer.

Hollander said it shows that the fire department needs more community involvement and that it needs a better public relations strategy. He may suggest, too, a policy change that makes administrative leave mandatory for employees who face criminal allegations.

To Martin, the lesson is even simpler.

"Independence is not something owed to us. I think it is something earned," he said. "If the voters don't think we have earned it, then we will have to work harder and prove that we have our ducks in a row."

-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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