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Voters said no, so let it go

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

After voters decidedly rejected a referendum to free the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District from financial oversight by the County Commission, some fire commissioners refused to accept the defeat as a mandate. Instead, Gene Panozzo, Tommy Marasciullo and Jeff Hollander accused Spring Hill voters of not understanding the issue.

"They had no idea what the word 'independence' meant," said Marasciullo.

"They don't understand," said Panozzo.

"The majority of those that were opposed . . . were just not familiar with what independence would do for their fire department . . ." said Hollander.

Seems to me it is those commissioners who don't understand. Specifically, they are having trouble with a word even children and pets can comprehend: "No."

It is clear that Spring Hill voters are happy with the status quo of having the County Commission review and approve the fire district's finances. In fact, voters are more certain of it now than when they first voted on this nonissue 10 years ago. In 1992, 53 percent of voters shot down the attempt; this year, 62 percent said no to independence.

But that is no deterrent to some commissioners, who are already talking about trotting out their "vote yes" campaign again in 2004 ballot. That would be an affront to voters, and the County Commission, which must approve all referendums, should be prepared to deny such a request.

This trio of commissioners seems to believe the only reason the independence vote failed is because they didn't do a good enough job of educating voters about the issue. Translated, that means they are blaming their loss on their public relations effort.

Granted, more could have been done to persuade voters. Direct mailings to voters from the firefighters' political action committee might have helped. Talking to more homeowners' groups would have, too. So would advertising on television and in newspapers.

But even then, independence for the fire district is a tough sell, because there's not much to sell. It really doesn't make much of a difference. There's nothing voters can wrap their arms around to conclude that their lives will improve if they make the change. Heck, forget about improving their lives; it's almost impossible to detect any change, good or bad.

Sure, some people who voted on this issue didn't have a clue what it was about. There are always some voters who don't bother to research a ballot initiative. They prefer to rely on advice from friends, or perhaps newspapers, or information from some other source they trust. But that bloc of voters is in the minority. Most people do at least some homework before they trek to the polls.

To their credit, fire Commissioners Richard Martin and Robert Kanner upheld the voters' decision. Kanner told the Times last week, "It is clear, after being turned down twice, that the people want oversight of the fire commission."

Martin's reaction was even more insightful. "Independence is not something owed to us. I think it is something earned," he said. ". . . People are very comfortable with the present arrangement. I'm not going to insult their intelligence by insinuating otherwise."

The other three commissioners' comments remind me of a fateful one made by former County Commissioner June Ester in 1994. Voters narrowly defeated a referendum that would have issued $5.6-million in bonds to build a new library on Spring Hill Drive. Shortly after the election, Ester suggest that voters had not understood what they were voting on. Then she went on to speculate that the commission might just build it anyway. Taxpayers were outraged, and most observers agree that was the beginning of the end of her political career.

Someone or something always has to be a scapegoat, and it sounds like some of the fire commissioners are ready to hang it on uninformed voters. Talk about bad public relations.

The fire commissioners should abandon the independence issue for a few years, and get comfortable with the explanation that Spring Hill voters are content with things just the way they are.

That rationalization is much more palatable than the alternative, which is that voters simply don't trust them.

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