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New era awaits County Commission

A bigger commission, coupled with the county administrator's retirement, may mean more debates and less cohesion come November.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


The first part of last week's Pinellas County Commission meeting was business as usual for the five-member board.

Commissioners bowed their heads in prayer, pledged allegiance to the flag, heard resident comments and then dispensed with 45 items in 45 minutes, practicing what some longtime observers refer to as the "rocket docket."

The next nine hours and 15 minutes were perhaps a glimpse of what's to come: Long spans of discussion, debate and deliberation with the occasional bathroom break thrown in.

Changes are in store for Pinellas County government. Not necessarily good or bad -- just different.

In November, the board will expand to seven members. At least three of them will be new to the group. For the first time, four of them will represent single-member districts instead of the entire county.

All this while former County Administrator Fred Marquis, who steered 24 commissioners around potential potholes for 22 years, has just retired.

"The really difficult part of this is it comes at the same time as we lose the administrative continuity we've had forever -- or it seems like forever. I think you're going to see a lot more split votes, maybe 5-2, 6-1 and 4-3, just because of the nature of the single-member versus at-large concept," said Commission Chairman Bob Stewart.

"The County Commission will become a little more interesting, a little more controversial," he said. "Hopefully, we'll continue to make good decisions."

While the cast of characters on the commission is not complete until the Nov. 7 general election, in reality, only two races are up for grabs.

Republican John Morroni faces Democrat Dave Buby for the District 6 seat, and Republican Brent Fisher squares off against Democrat Ken Welch for the southernmost District 7 spot.

Otherwise, residents know for sure who at least four of their seven commissioners will be.

Calvin Harris, who was appointed to the board in 1997 and elected the following year, and Barbara Sheen Todd, who has served 18 of the last 20 years, did not have to seek re-election this year.

Karen Seel, who was appointed in January 1999, was elected in the Sept. 5 primary to the single-member District 5 seat. And Susan Latvala, a School Board member, was elected the same day to the single-member District 4 seat being vacated by Sallie Parks.

In addition, Stewart faces a write-in candidate in the general election, a virtual guarantee that he will return to the board.

But beyond the personalities, there are plenty of unknowns.

Until this year, commissioners were elected countywide and represented the entire county even though they had to live in specific geographic areas. Now the majority of them will represent single-member districts instead. Will that divide the board?

Unlike its counterpart in Hillsborough County, the Pinellas commission has been a model of consensus, an almost uninterrupted pattern of unanimous votes for years.

The lack of debate was often attributed to Marquis, who traditionally smoothed things over behind the scenes long before an issue made it onto a commission agenda. Will his predecessor operate the same way?

Will this era of good feeling come to an end?

"The most significant change is the increase in board members from five to seven. Seven-member boards invariably are more unwieldy and become more contentious than five-member boards. It's harder to achieve consensus," said Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong, who has argued zoning cases in front of the Pinellas commission for years. "I don't think you're going to see a Hillsborough (County Commission) or a St. Pete City Council, but I don't think it's going to be the well-oiled consensus machine we're used to seeing."

Gearing up for single-member districts

While the size of the commission likely will herald longer meetings and fewer unanimous decisions, the change that seems to have caused the most nail biting has been the switch to single-member districts.

The five current commissioners were adamantly opposed to single-member districts in November 1999, when voters approved the concept by a scant 23 votes. The elected leaders worried the switch would lead to a divided county where commissioners cared only about the smaller area they represented.

"My fear is still, sort of, are people going to get real parochial? Some people have two-year terms and some have four-year terms, and some may be looking forward to the next election faster than you'd want them to," said Sallie Parks, who is leaving the commission this year. "Awareness of "my back yard' is going to loom larger than it has before."

Chuck Rainey, who served on the County Commission from 1967 to 1996, warns that the system creates a less cohesive commission.

"You're going to see a lot of changes, changes in policy, trying to reinvent the wheel, different sentiments because now "I represent a district instead of the county as a whole,' " he said. "You'll probably see some bartering back and forth: "I'll do for you as long as you do for me.' "

That may yet be the case. But some of those who originally hated the idea are slowly coming around.

Todd said she is still a little concerned that single-member districts will breed parochial commissioners, "but I guess I'm beginning to accept the fact that change is inevitable."

Latvala admits she's "done a complete 180" on the single-member district concept. Campaigning in District 4 this year, instead of going after countywide voters as she did during her two terms on the School Board, enabled her to focus more on the issues important to North Pinellas, she said.

And city officials, who sometimes feel left out of county government, liked knowing they had a specific commissioner they could turn to, said Latvala, who, along with the District 6 commissioner, will serve a two-year term this time to stagger elections.

Marquis announced last year that he would retire largely because voters approved single-member districts. He made good on his pledge, stepping down Aug. 31.

But even he said he is not too worried about how the incoming board will handle the new arrangement.

"I personally don't think it's going to have the magnitude everyone's concerned about. The majority of the board will be the current board. I'm not as concerned today as I was six months ago," Marquis said. "I think it's going to stay surprisingly stable.

"So much is driven by the caliber of the candidates. Fortunately, a very good set of logical ones are going to be there," he said. "If real doofuses had surfaced with avid agendas, we'd be having an entirely different discussion. I think they're all team players."

With four commissioners likely returning to the board and the addition of Latvala, hardly a stranger to voters, citizens say they know what to expect. The bigger concerns, say county government insiders, are several years away.

"There are enough former members now to kind of keep a balance," said Harris. "I think the difference comes five years, six years, 10 years down the road when everybody's new and nobody remembers what it was like to represent the county as a whole, and they fight for their turf."

'Come together'

Current commissioners say they hope to head off any of that unpleasantness by instilling in their new colleagues the same sort of consensus-loving values they have.

They say they are not trying to squelch debate -- just keep it civil.

"We have an opportunity to really carve out the future. We need to start from the very beginning with an attitude that we need to work together as a team," Todd said. "There have been many times when we have had differences of opinion with the current board, but we respect each other's rights to have those opinions."

Todd is working with the Florida Association of Counties to develop training programs for new commissioners. She has suggested that Pinellas' current commissioners plan some sort of orientation for the newcomers.

"I really think we're going to just have to sit down and have some round tables and get-to-know-you type sessions and lay out some ground rules everyone can agree on," Seel said. "I just think there's a lot to be said for sitting down and doing warm and fuzzy things when starting to work together."

When Seel first joined the board, she turned to Marquis for guidance and a historical perspective. In his absence, incoming commissioners say they will be looking to incumbents like Seel.

"With Fred leaving, it's going to force us to come together quickly as a body and create a vision for the county. We have to come together and make sure we're on the same page," Latvala said. "I am looking to the current commissioners for strong leadership. They're the ones with continuity. They have to be willing to change and do things differently because it's a new regime. But they have to guide us so we don't make any drastic mistakes."

Said Stewart: "I think those of us who have been there are going to have to show some flexibility and some patience."

While reinventing the County Commission brings with it a degree of apprehension, change has its advantages.

When Todd first joined the board in 1980, the commission offices, which had hosted only one other female commissioner before her, had no women's restroom. During televised commission meetings, she had to make a mad dash down the hallway to use the public bathrooms, a situation that was remedied when she complained to Marquis.

"The county government is going to change," she said. "We might as well be prepared for it."

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