Weeks of lobbying for naught?

Tarpon Springs' city manager-lobbyist bent the ears of the Capitol. But was she heard?

Published May 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Legislature's decision this week to shelve talks about property tax reform until a special session next month could be seen as a victory for Ellen Posivach.

Or not.

For the past seven weeks, the Tarpon Springs city manager hasn't reported to City Hall for work. Rather, she's lobbied on behalf of cities - her city in particular - full-time in Tallahassee. She's haunted the corridors of the House and Senate, peppering lawmakers with financial documents, describing, in full fiscal detail, how a drastic property tax rollback would hurt city services.

Perhaps lawmakers listened. Perhaps they understood they need to hammer out a plan more palatable for cities in a special session.

Then again, maybe they didn't.

Despite Tarpon Springs' expense and sacrifice of its top administrator, there's still no indication that cities will come through the property tax debacle any better off. Nor is it clear that Posivach, one of dozens of voices lobbying against the changes, made any significant individual impact.

Such is the amorphous nature of lobbying.

Posivach's "message has gotten through, " said Republican Rep. Peter Nehr, a former Tarpon Springs commissioner.

Nonetheless, Nehr joined his House colleagues last month in backing the most city-unfriendly plan, House Speaker Marco Rubio's proposal to roll back local government property tax revenues to 2001 levels. "Whether people agree with her or not is a different story."

The day before it all fell apart, before lawmakers decided they'd have to come back next month for a special session, Posivach sat at an outdoor cafe in the shadow of the state Capitol, picking at a small salad.

"Who knows?" she remarked Tuesday on her effectiveness in Tallahassee. But, she added: "Wherever I see an opening, I'm there."

It was her ability to catch people's attention that got Posivach to Tallahassee in the first place.

As lawmakers traveled the state several months ago, holding public hearings on property taxes, Posivach was at their heels.

"She's a real trouper, " said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, chairman of the Finance and Tax Committee, who said he'd seen Posivach at nearly every relevant forum and committee hearing.

City commissioners were impressed by her ability to present the city's case - from an insider perspective - and by the attention and respect she received from lawmakers. So when Posivach recommended that she turn her job over to Tarpon Springs' police chief for seven of the legislative session's nine weeks so she could head to Tallahassee, they said yes.

It's not abnormal for local governments to hire lobbyists on their behalf, and for city officials to spend a few days in Tallahassee during the annual session. But sending an actual city manager to do the job - for an entire session - is unorthodox.

But, commissioners said, Posivach is a special case. She'd had experience in Virginia lobbying on behalf of cities. And they believed she could do the job for a fraction of what hiring a professional lobbyist would cost.

Posivach estimates that her expenses will come to about $4, 600. City commissioners gave police Chief Mark LeCouris a 5 percent pay increase for the period he's running Tarpon Springs in her absence. His annual salary is about $100, 000.

Mayor Beverley Billiris said she only had one concern in sending her manager to the state capital: Would the city be okay without her? But when she went up to Tallahassee to check on Posivach after her first week, Billiris decided she was more needed there than at home.

"We need to be in their face, " Billiris said. "E-mails and phone calls aren't enough."

Posivach said she has done all she can to make herself visible. She started with a pop-culture reference.

"I appreciate your desire to turn back time, " she told members of the House Policy and Budget Council on March 9 of the plan to roll back property taxes to 2001 levels. "It didn't work for Cher and I don't think it will work for us."

On hearing the diva's name, Posivach said, council members snapped to attention.

"There are so many people talking to these folks, you need to make yourself stand out, " she said.

She's become a regular on the fourth and fifth floors of the Capitol, where lobbyists and journalists linger, trying to snag lawmakers as they come in and out of the chambers. She's pounded the endless legislative hallways, dropping in on lawmakers and their assistants.

"I started off in wedge shoes and am almost down to sandals, " she joked.

Lawmakers like Republican Rep. Tom Anderson, who represents part of Tarpon Springs, said she couldn't be doing more for her city - though he too voted for Rubio's tax plan.

"You can't beat eyeball-to-eyeball contact, " he said, adding that lawmakers would rather hear from elected or appointed officials than lobbyists.

Even lobbyists who make a living working for cities agree with this sentiment, to a certain extent. John Wayne Smith, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said Posivach has been a tremendous asset in Tallahassee.

"She's helped us break things down, " Smith said. "In Tallahassee, we're just looking at sheets of paper with numbers. There's a disconnect between those sheets and the actual outcomes."

Not all back on the home front are lauding Posivach's efforts.

Commissioner Peter Dalacos said he couldn't gauge how valuable Posivach's work in Tallahassee has been because she hasn't filed regular reports.

He said residents often ask him what she has been doing.

"They say, 'She's just up there hobnobbing, looking to network, ' " he said.

During one commission meeting, Dalacos recommended Posivach be more accountable for her time by filing regular reports. But the idea failed to get support. Dalacos' colleagues said they didn't want to micromanage the city manager and felt phone updates were sufficient.

"Things are too fragile" in Tallahassee, Billiris said. "If she puts information in writing (prematurely) no one will confide in her."

Dalacos said he will reserve judgment regarding whether the commission should have sent Posivach to Tallahassee until there is a final word on the property tax situation. If cities come out okay, he'll assume the trip was worthwhile.

But Billiris' opinion isn't as tied to outcomes.

"No matter what happens, I think our voices have been heard, " she said. "Whether they actually listened, we don't know."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.