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A Times Editorial

Now is time to get involved


© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Could it be that the sleeping giant is rousing? Are the people of Citrus County starting to notice the major quality-of-life issues they face?

In recent weeks, more than 600 people took time from their busy days to attend two county commission meetings on a topic as unsexy as garbage hauling. More than 8,000 people signed petitions opposing the commission's intentions on this issue. That's impressive.

This follows on the furor that began last year and continues to percolate over the Halls River Retreat condo project. People from throughout the county recognized the implications of allowing the fragile coastline to be degraded by development, a proposal supported by commissioners who chose to ignore the county's comprehensive growth management plan.

Lingering in the background is the emotional debate over whether the state should extend the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus County. This issue may not be on the front burner at the moment, but a large segment of the population is tracking these plans closely and will insist that their voices be heard when the decisions are being made.

To a lesser extent, the Citrus School Board is feeling similar heat. More than 1,000 people signed petitions aimed at blocking a land deal in Lecanto. Their efforts failed, but the School Board members couldn't help but take notice of the amount of public interest.

And, this week, voters in Inverness reshuffled the deck at City Hall by sending two incumbent City Council members to the showers. Had a mere eight people voted differently, it would have been a clean sweep for the three newcomers on the ballot.

The common denominator in these situations is the public shaking off its complacency and telling their elected representatives that their wishes are not being fulfilled.

For a county that is at a crossroads, with major decisions being made today that will fundamentally impact Citrus County's future, this is a healthy trend.

You can look at these as isolated issues that draw out only those directly affected. And you can also note that 600 people out of a county of 120,000 souls, or 1,000 Inverness voters out of more than 5,000 people who are registered to vote, is hardly a ground swell.

Or you can realize just how rare it is in Citrus County for any issue to draw this kind of public attention.

It is too easy, and understandable, for people to become caught up in their own little worlds and to miss the big picture. That's especially true for a county like Citrus where most of the people are from somewhere else and who may not feel deeply connected to their new locale. Asking a community consisting largely of out-of-state retirees to do the hard work and make the sacrifices to shape the future of their new home can seem unrealistic to some.

Yet, these people moved here for a reason. It's not too much to ask them to speak up when those reasons are threatened.

The intense community reactions so far have been fueled by what can be called the anti-crowd. They are united in opposition to whatever is being proposed.

That's a good place to start. People generally don't get fired up by a government's actions unless it impacts them directly and they don't like it. Or they feel that they are being taken for a ride by politicians.

The second part of that effort, however, is more important. That is, offering constructive suggestions to improve the situation. Citrus residents have been lacking in that part of the equation.

As it happens, there are ample opportunities right now for people here to help their community. The question is, are the people interested in getting their hands dirty by doing the hard work it takes to improve their quality of life, or do they simply want to stand back and boo the work of others?

The coming weeks and months should provide some answers.

The commission soon will announce schedules for town meetings on the mandatory garbage collection issue. If these meetings are to be worthwhile, residents should, first, show up, and second, have specific ideas and solutions to the problem.

There also are workshops going on for changes to the comprehensive plan. This is dry stuff, but, as we've seen with the condo project and now with the garbage issue, this plan directly impacts lives. It's worth the time and effort to understand the plan and to update it.

Interested in the parkway? There are a number of workshops being held now on whether this controversial highway should be built here. If you have a strong opinion, you should speak it -- now -- at these meetings.

If your concern is the problems with the lake chain along the county's eastern border, then you should be at the workshops being set up to set up specific improvement projects aimed at breathing life back into these dying waterways.

And if you have any interest in keeping U.S. 19 in Citrus County from becoming a mirror image of the highway in counties south of here, attend the planning board hearings on the proposal to erect yet another big-box store -- a Wal-Mart Supercenter -- on wetlands adjacent to the already busy road.

Important decisions are being made right now on education, social services, law enforcement and other areas. Something is bound to catch your fancy.

It's a good sign that so many people here are starting to pay attention to the changes going on around them, but it's not enough to simply be a spectator. Residents must remember that they, not the people they elect, are the ultimate authority.

You do have a voice in how your community is run, but only if you bother to speak up.

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