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Columns

Rowden passes the buck to the People

By JEFF WEBB
Published April 19, 2007


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Diane Rowden's name won't appear on the ballot for re-election until 2008. But the outcome may have been decided Tuesday.

It's too early to tell if she won or lost, but it is fair to speculate that her unexpected - and transparent - actions Tuesday either will cost her votes, or pick up enough to return her to a third four-year term on the Hernando County Commission.

I refer to the commission's 3-2 vote not to adopt a proposed ordinance that would have abolished the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission, and made the County Commission the sole governing authority over the fire district. Commissioners David Russell Jr., whose idea it was, and Chris Kingsley voted for it; Commissioners Jeff Stabins, Rose Rocco and Rowden voted against it.

Then on Tuesday, before there was a word of debate on the merit of the proposed ordinance, before a peep was heard from the gaggle of lawyers nesting in front of the dais, and before the first impassioned plea from anyone in the audience, Rowden tried to pull the plug on the public hearing.

Cancel it and replace it with a motion to let the People decide the fate of the fire commission, she cried. The People cheered, just as Rowden knew they would. She is, after all, a People Person.

She couldn't get any support for her idea, and the public hearing went on as scheduled. But at that point it didn't matter that her motion had failed; she already had seized the opportunity to be a crowd pleaser.

It is not exactly surprising that Rowden, who is somewhat of a professional populist, played to the crowd. It is surprising, however, that her sudden desire to let people govern themselves was a flip-flop from a week earlier, when she was squarely behind Russell's proposed ordinance.

"It's the right thing to do," she told me then.

Of course, she wasn't staring into the eyes of a couple of hundred angry constituents when she made that principled statement.

As Rowden retreated Tuesday from her previous stance, she left the door open for Rocco to tiptoe through after she, too, took the easy way out by relinquishing her responsibility to voters.

I can write off Rocco's decision as a rookie mistake. She hasn't had too many occasions yet to be put on the spot, and she certainly has not faced a group that rowdy and thirsty for politicians' blood.

But Rowden has sat in the hot seat so may times she's left an indelible imprint. There is no doubt she knew what she was doing, why she was doing it and how it would affect others, including Kingsley. He also is up for re-election, but he had the courage to vote his conviction that this ordinance was in the best interest of Spring Hill residents.

But I wonder if Rowden is as sure about how this might affect her. Sure, she picked a few hundred, maybe even a 1,000, quick votes with her expedient flip-flop Tuesday. But what about the more than 60,000 Spring Hill voters who weren't at the meeting? They are the ones who don't really give a hoot whether the fire commission or the County Commission runs things, as long as the ambulance or firetruck shows up when they need it.

And what about the other 60,000 voters elsewhere in the county who didn't have a dog in this hunt, but who watched the chase from the porch? Rowden may run into a disapproving backlash there.

"What can I say? I changed my mind," she said Wednesday. She did so the day before the public hearing, she said.

It is fair to say this matter was handled clumsily. The county came off as hamfisted and haughty, and inadvertently made martyrs of the fire commission. It probably would have made more sense for the commission to wait until later this year when it had the final report from the consultant who is examining fire service for the whole county. Maybe the commission should have put it to a referendum in the first place and skipped this intermediate step of trying to kick the fire commission to the curb. There is room for reasoned disagreement on those topics.

Sadly, there was precious little discussion among board members or the audience about the merits of the ordinance. Instead, it turned into a pep rally, and a debate about the merits of a referendum.

Now we wait and see what the rest of the People have to say about independence for the fire district, as well as Rowden's bald-faced about-face.

In the meantime, the fire district should enjoy doing as it pleases because Tuesday's vote reduced the County Commission to the role of a babysitter - except not that powerful.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or 352 754-6123.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 08:00:54]


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