City blasts county-seat vote
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times,
INVERNESS -- The city of Inverness fired its first shot back at the county Thursday with a curt letter promising to explore "all available remedies" if the county moves forward with a referendum on relocating the County Commission's offices and meetings to Lecanto.
Miami attorney Mark Hicks, who represents Inverness on county seat issues, wrote that the commission's 3-2 decision Tuesday to hold a non-binding referendum on moving to Lecanto is "ill-advised, contrary to law and a veiled attempt to move the county seat."
"The City of Inverness respectfully requests that you cancel the proposed referendum and that the Citrus County Commission refrain from attempting to relocate its official offices and meeting location from the county seat, the City of Inverness," the two-page letter reads. "In the event the commission is unwilling to do so, the City of Inverness plans to explore and potentially exercise all available remedies."
Coming from the desk of the city's attorney, the letter foreshadows a possible legal battle between the city and the county, a concern Commissioners Jim Fowler and Josh Wooten raised Tuesday when voting against the referendum.
"What this does is it makes that option (of holding a referendum) the most expensive option by far," Fowler said Thursday.
It will cost the county between $60,000 and $80,000 to hold the special election on this one issue, money that Fowler said could be better spent hiring two more drivers for the overburdened county transit system. Any legal challenges would add to the price of the referendum, he said.
"When you consider the needs that we have in this county, the money could be spent in many other ways," Fowler said.
But commission Chairman Roger Batchelor, who voted in favor of the referendum, said he sees no reason to change his mind.
The commission voted in 1999 to expand the county seat boundaries to part of Lecanto, 10 miles west of the Inverness city limits, based on a state statute that allows commissions to expand the county seat. As part of that resolution, the commission said it would not move any office to Lecanto without first holding a voter referendum.
"It's time to find out whether expanding that county seat was worth a damn or not," Batchelor said Thursday.
"It's too bad Inverness wants to take that stance," Batchelor added. "But I think it's time to clear the air and find out if we can do this."
As long as that remains the majority view on the commission, county officials will move forward with the referendum, County Administrator Richard Wesch said.
"We obviously do not believe such actions would be contrary to law," Wesch said. "Ultimately, I presume a court will decide these issues if we have to get to that point, but it is my sincere hope and desire that we never do."
Although Fowler said during Tuesday's debate that Inverness has a $250,000 war chest to fight any county move to Lecanto, Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said the city has no legal fund dedicated to the county seat issue.
"We didn't say we're going to spend "X' amount to challenge someone legally. We don't do things like that," DiGiovanni said. "We have reserves set aside in different areas, and there are sections of the budget that the city could easily move and make appropriations out of."
If it comes down to a legal battle, County Attorney Robert Battista said the state statute allowing expansion of the county seat beyond the city limits will put the commission on solid legal ground.
"It all looks clean and pristine to me," Battista said.
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