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Facing angry crowd, council delays decision

Opponents of a tax to pay for street improvements jam a meeting of the New Port Richey City Council.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- City Council members were in a closed-door executive session when sounds of the democratic process suddenly intruded.

Honking car horns, commands to "budget better!" and calls for three new council members blared from the steps of City Hall.

"It was like we were Nero, and Rome was burning," council member Tom Finn recalled Wednesday.

And that was just the prelude to a meeting in which nearly 200 angry citizens railed against council members and pleaded that they couldn't afford the proposed street improvement project that would cost 725 residents throughout New Port Richey from $893.18 to as much as $2,235.28.

"Taxation without representation!"

"We believe it's unconstitutional!"

"People came here to retire -- and instead they're being lynched!"

Council members voted 5-0 Tuesday night to delay their decision on whether to okay the $1.5-million project until they receive bids from contractors.

The city has been working with cost estimates from its engineers. Typically, council members decide whether to approve a project before they direct city staff to spend the time and money sending the project out to bid.

But Deputy Mayor Ginny Miller motioned for the vote to delay in an effort to quell some anxieties that had inflamed the debate.

"I don't feel like the mutual trust and ability to argue and walk away with a better understanding has been where it should be," Miller said Wednesday. "The facts have been mixed up with interpretations. We need to know what we're dealing with."

The action delays the decision until after the city's April 10 election, where three seats -- those of Miller, Finn and Jack Van Keuren -- are on the ballot.

The vote came after Mayor Wendy Brenner and Finn had exchanged a few terse words. Before he voted to support Miller's motion, Finn stressed that he was "totally against" the project, and residents shouldn't have to shoulder the costs. Funds from the local option gas tax should be used for projects like these, Finn said, and to assess residents was "double taxation. And that's illegal!"

That's when Brenner spoke.

"I'd like you all to come back to other council meetings to listen to this same person speak. It's real interesting."

As groans ensued, Finn conceded that while he may not have supported this view in the past, he now had found a better way to fund the project.

After the applause, Brenner spoke again.

"You should have (said) that this was a paid political announcement."

After laughter from the crowd, Brenner repeatedly apologized, but maintained that she was frustrated.

"It's really difficult to sit up here with someone who just pulled what he did here, and if you attended the meetings like we do, you'll see a whole different side," she said. "Later on in the year, when we want to fund one of his projects, I want you to all come back with the same furor."

Brenner said Wednesday that even with emotions running so high, she shouldn't have said what she did.

Although they are glad to have people participating in the democratic process, she and other council members said, they were frustrated with some of the methods employed.

"I would love it if we had 200 people in every meeting; typically, it's only four or five and we're not getting the gist of what they think," Brenner said. "However, by making accusations and by shouting things, we don't get anywhere and it just upsets everyone."

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