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Civic activist leaves a gap

In failing health, she resigns from the bus board and stops attending County Commission meetings.

By AMELIA DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


CLEARWATER -- In the 13 years Bonnie Harding served as a citizens' representative on the board that oversees bus transportation in the county, she missed only one meeting.

Harding had a similar attendance record at daytime meetings of the County Commission.

She missed the meetings so rarely, a former commissioner had a copper plaque engraved with the words "Reserved for Bonnie Harding." The plaque hung for years around a chair in the commission chambers.

But Harding's life is quickly changing. She recently resigned from the bus board. She attended her last County Commission meeting two weeks ago. Last week, the 93-year-old sent her son to the commission's chambers to retrieve her plaque.

Two faulty heart valves keep her hooked up to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.

"I don't know how we're going to replace her," said County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who also serves as chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the bus board.

"Because Bonnie rode the buses, she was the perfect advocate for our bus passengers. She bridged the gap between our customers and the board. I try to ride the buses, especially the new routes. But Bonnie rode them all the time."

On the 10th floor of an Island Estates condominium where she has lived for 32 years, Harding's plaque, commissioned by former Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Rainey, now hangs on the back of her easy chair.

She still reads two daily newspapers and Reader's Digest and listens to talk radio until she goes to sleep. She doesn't own a TV.

Government has always been her interest, she said.

"I like to be there and look up and see all those young people forming policies for you and me," Harding said.

But don't think for a minute Harding has merely been watching from a distance. As most commissioners will testify, Harding has an opinion for every issue. At the last County Commission meeting she attended, she chastised commissioners for bemoaning the way residents waste water.

"I told them them the county courthouse wastes more money than anybody," Harding said. "The toilets (which are automatic) flush three or four times when you use them. It's a great waste of water."

During her 13 years on the bus board, she has frequently voted against salary increases for executives. She also voted against fare increases for bus riders.

After reading about a proposed fare increase in 1995, Harding told her fellow members: "I wasn't angry when I read about this. I was mad as hell." The increase was approved despite her objection.

Born in Canada, Harding lived in Detroit for most of her adult life. Her husband, George, died a year and a half ago. Once, he gave her a car, she said, "and I cried. I hated driving."

She preferred the bus and didn't mind the extra time it took. Getting to her bus board meetings on 49th Street was an hour each way, she said. "But you meet a lot of interesting people."

Once, just for fun, she caught a bus on Christmas Day "just to see who would be riding it. It was mostly people going shopping at Walgreens."

In 1997, when Harding was reappointed to another term on the bus board, County Commissioner Bob Stewart noted that she was "probably the oldest citizen in Pinellas County to represent the county's citizens on any board or commission."

"She put humanity into the services we provide," Commissioner Harris said. "I'm going to miss her a great deal."

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