Talking to officials not always easy

Published February 2, 2007

Like a driver stopping for a gopher tortoise, the County Commission paused to observe 30 red-shirted members of the audience opposed to the massive Lake Hutto development in Lithia.

"I see a lot of head shaking and a lot of, I know, pent-up frustration," Commissioner Brian Blair said midway through a special hearing in December. "I'm trying to put myself in your seat, in your shoes, and do a balancing act here."

Blair never left the dais, nor did he exchange shoes with residents. He voted with a 5-2 majority to approve Lake Hutto's 3,200 units and 360,000 square feet of commercial space on 1,100 acres.

Blair's appeal for residents to have up to five minutes to speak against the Pulte Homes development failed.

County Attorney Adam Gormly noted that the board had already closed public comment on May 11.

But in raising the issue, Blair highlighted the difficulty that citizens sometimes face when trying to comment at County Commission meetings - a procedure other area governments handle differently.

In rejecting Blair's appeal to let residents speak, Chairman Jim Norman described the zoning hearing master and County Commission as formal proceedings that carry legal weight.

"If we start taking new information from the School Board and new information from the public, it's not the same record," he said.

But earlier in the same meeting, the commission already heard new information from the Hillsborough School Board.

Chief Facilities Officer Cathy Valdes described the upside of a deal with Pulte: If commissioners approved Lake Hutto, the developer would donate 32 acres for an elementary and a middle school.

Valdes ticked off six other possible school sites connected to developments in Riverview, Gibsonton and Apollo Beach.

"The problem we would find ourselves in is they're not as centrally located as this Lake Hutto site," Valdes said.

No similar analysis of alternative school sites appeared in previous County Commission meetings or zoning hearing master proceedings involving Lake Hutto.

So why was Valdes allowed to speak but residents weren't?

The difference, according to Gormly, is that Valdes was answering a direct question by Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who asked for a clarification on available school space.

Blair did not ask citizens a question but tried to open the floor.

"Commissioners were deliberate about concluding the public hearing in May," Gormly said.

"They were observing the letter of the law but not the spirit," said Dave Kulow, a board member of the Boyette Springs Homeowners Association and a critic of the development, which he believes will dump more traffic onto overtaxed roads. "There were many instances in which county staff briefed commissioners about Lake Hutto but we couldn't."

Pasco and Manatee county commissions, as well as the Tampa City Council, do not restrict citizen comments to people who have appeared before other committees or boards.

The Pasco County Commission plans to make it easier for residents to address the commission. Instead of delaying public comment until the close of other business, citizens can address the commission starting at 1:30 p.m.

Unfinished business will have to wait, Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher said.

"People were waiting around all day, and that was the problem," he added.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.