For Scott, it's culture shock

An ex-county commissioner adjusts to a less powerful role.

Published May 20, 2007

TAMPA - He shakes his head. He rolls his eyes. He laughs, flabbergasted.

It's another City Council meeting for Tom Scott, who joined the board in March after 10 years on the Hillsborough County Commission.

The switch, a rare one in local politics, is as stark for Scott as making the leap from Kansas to Oz.

"Culture shock, " Scott calls it.

And no amount of heel clicking can take him back. Still, he clicks away.

He wants a hearing master to vet zoning petitions - like they do at the county.

He would like to group zoning hearings and policy discussions on alternate weeks - like they do at the county.

He pushed for a City Council retreat - like they had at the county.

But Scott still is struggling to come to terms with his role in a strong-mayor government where he has nowhere near the resources or power he had at the county. At a meeting in early May, he voiced his frustration.

"You have to work with the administration, and that can be problematic, " said Scott, who represents east Tampa.

It seems there's always a roadblock, he said.

"When citizens come before us with a legitimate concern, all you can do is forward it to the administration, " he said.

In an interview last week, council member Charlie Miranda said Scott's dismay is palpable, and understandable. "This government is different than where he comes from. Where he comes from, you've got seven mini-mayors. Here, you've got one big powerful mayor, whoever that person is, " Miranda said. "You have to understand you have a limited role. Yes, you have a strong role, but when you compare it to the mayor, it's limited."

The county's charter says its seven elected commissioners set policy and their appointed administrator carries it out. But practically, commissioners have almost all the power in county government. In the city, the mayor holds the cards, and City Council members have long felt like second cousins.

Switch to county

Rose Ferlita, who served on the City Council for eight years before her election in November to the County Commission, is experiencing a different kind of culture shock.

"Here, anything you ask is done, and it's done quickly, " she said.

On the other hand, the city has checks and balances the county lacks, she said. It's less likely the county administrator and attorney will challenge commissioners, who are their bosses, Ferlita said.

Scott acknowledges the transition has been difficult, but in recent weeks, he has come to terms with issues as simple as getting items on the agenda. At the county he could do it with a memo, but in the city it requires the support of three other council members.

But he still believes the council could streamline the way it does business and be more efficient.

"As much criticism as the County Commission gets, they're far ahead on a lot of issues as to how process is established and doing business, " he said. "I would think I bring some new insight to the council, and everybody is open to that."

At least one council member is.

Support for retreat

Linda Saul-Sena, who just started her fourth term on the council under her third mayor, said she also advocated for a retreat to explore how the council can be more effective, and welcomes Scott's support for the idea.

"He wants council to play an active role. He wants literally to help set the agenda, " she said.

Scott figures some of his ideas will gain acceptance and others won't. Neighborhood leaders recently booed his idea of a zoning hearing master - a setup in which an unelected official first hears evidence in zoning cases and gives a recommendation to commissioners who make the final decision.

Some council members also oppose the concept, including John Dingfelder, who says residents want as much access as possible to their elected officials.

But Scott hopes that the retreat will allow the board to outline ways to make meetings move more efficiently, and keep matters from being delayed for months.

"At the end of the day, all I want is a good City Council that is effective and understands its role and feels empowered to get their job done, " Scott said. "I think that we can do better."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.