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A Times Editorial

Commissioners must find out what people want

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2002


It's time to take down the signs, flush the vile campaign literature and begin the really tough task of politics: governing in the best interests of all of the people.

It's time to take down the signs, flush the vile campaign literature and begin the really tough task of politics: governing in the best interests of all of the people.

In Citrus County, that presents an interesting challenge for the county commissioners.

Voters on Tuesday sent two strong, if somewhat contradictory, messages to the five-member governing board. By significant margins, voters returned two incumbents who couldn't be further apart philosophically to the commission.

What signal does that send to the board members? What does the electorate really want?

The easier question to answer is, what don't they want? Voters rejected the campaigns of two challengers who had no experience in public office and who offered platforms consisting of little more than the fact that they are not the incumbents.

In the case of one challenger, Scott Adams, the voters said clearly that they do not want someone with his baggage on the County Commission. Adams never denied that he had been arrested several years ago, and his opponent, Jim Fowler, never let voters forget it.

Fueled by an unprecedented end-of-the-campaign cash infusion, Fowler pounded home the message that Adams is dangerous. Sheriff Jeff Dawsy reinforced this point in a highly publicized news conference in the campaign's waning days, as did an e-mail on the same theme from Commissioner Josh Wooten to fellow Democrats.

How would Fowler have fared in a one-on-one battle with a stronger candidate? We'll never know, obviously. But to Fowler's credit, he beat every foe he faced this year.

His greatest challenge, one he alluded to Tuesday night when victory was assured, is to connect with his constituents. "It is clear to me there is a segment of the community I need to reach out to in the next four years, and I intend to do that," he told the Times.

There is no doubt that he already is connected to another segment of the community, the development interests who poured nearly $100,000 into his campaign. (For a list of contributors, go to www.elections.citrus.fl.us/ and look under "candidates and elected officials.")

If Fowler is sincere in his desire to "reach out" to his opponents in the coming years, he could go a long way toward healing the rift that he helped create by dismissing differing points of view as mere opinions that he is under no obligation to acknowledge.

The results in the Fowler-Adams race would indicate that Citrus County voters want a pro-business commission, one that seeks to create opportunities for growth. How, then, to explain the re-election of Commissioner Gary Bartell, whose margin of victory over Democrat Phil Mulrain was even larger than the gap between Fowler and Adams?

Bartell has stood for managed growth while preserving the environment. Unlike Fowler, his candidacy did not attract the big-money supporters and business interests; yet, his victory was even more decisive than Fowler's. Does that mean that ordinary voters, those who have no business ties, support Bartell's balanced-growth philosophy more than Fowler's?

In re-electing both commissioners, the voters were consistently inconsistent.

One fact remains as true today as it was before the elections: Citrus County is at the crossroads between remaining a semirural community and becoming a mirror image of the overdeveloped areas stretching from Spring Hill south to the Sunshine Skyway bridge. This board of commissioners will make decisions in the coming few years that will impact the quality of life for every Citrus resident.

What, then, is the mandate for those commissioners? What do the people really want their county to become?

The voters have spoken, but not in a single, unified voice. Discerning their intentions will not be easy. But having a commissioner pledge to begin reaching out and listening is a good place to start.

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