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Debate over commission elections is lopsided

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 1999


In an ideal world, public debate over changing the way Pinellas elects county commissioners would be like a see-saw balanced in mid-air.

Opponents of the plan to expand the commission by two seats and allow four of the seven to be elected by district rather than countywide elections would make their case. Supporters would counter with equal force in arguing for the change.

On Nov. 2, voters would decide which side to join and tilt the see-saw in one direction or the other.

In the political world, though, the see-saw appears hopelessly imbalanced.

Vigorously opposing the referendum are the heavyweights of Pinellas politics who want to hold onto their power. They include most of the incumbent commissioners, County Administrator Fred Marquis, the construction industry, and prominent lawyers and business leaders who depend on personal relationships at the County Courthouse to get what they want.

On the other side are ... well, we're still looking. Supporters of district elections, from black political activists to some Democratic Party leaders to a handful of local city officials, have failed to organize.

It is hard to imagine a more discouraging set of political circumstances for a basic, fundamental reform.

The referendum is joined on the Nov. 2 ballot only by a more obscure amendment to the county charter. This guarantees that a tiny portion of the county's voters will decide an issue that affects everyone.

The County Commission has not spent a nickel to educate voters on the issue. This is the same commission that spent $90,000 to inform voters about the Penny for Pinellas referendum. It is the same commission that spent nearly $238,000 on a campaign last year to persuade voters to approve a constitutional amendment that requires the state to take over more of the costs of running the state court system.

Given that history, it is irresponsible for the county to fail to educate voters about a basic change in their government. Instead, many voters are receiving mailings from opponents of the referendum that are misleading.

To call this a stacked deck is too polite.

"The problem is, a lot of the power structure in the county is against it. ... People have been very reluctant to get involved," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, who supports the referendum but has not campaigned for it. "It's been very tempting, because I see officials speaking on the other side, and I want to try to even the odds a little bit."

Without Latvala's muscle, there would be no referendum. Other supporters, including Rep. Rudy Bradley of St. Petersburg, would not have been able to pass the legislation setting up the referendum without his help. But unlike Bradley, Latvala has a legitimate reason for staying quiet: His wife, Susan, plans to leave the School Board to run for the County Commission.

The opportunity to make county government more responsive and representative will be defeated, probably for decades, unless something unforeseen happens in the next week. The sad part is most voters won't even know it.

The amendment is easy to understand. Currently, Pinellas has five county commissioners elected countywide. The amendment would expand the commission to seven members. Four would be elected in new districts. Three would continue to be elected countywide.

The arguments for making the change are straightforward.

Pinellas has more than 892,000 residents, and the concerns in St. Petersburg are often different than those in Clearwater or Tarpon Springs. Even hard-working commissioners cannot be experts on every issue.

Of the seven largest charter counties, Pinellas is one of only two without some form of district elections. The other is Broward, and voters there soon will decide whether to create district elections and a strong county mayor.

Within Pinellas, there are two congressional districts and parts of nine state House districts. Yet we expect county commissioners to run countywide and be just as responsive to residents and local problems.

District elections would enable voters to hold county commissioners more accountable. They also would expand the list of potential commission candidates. It would cost less money to run, and city officials or neighborhood activists who have performed well but aren't well-known countywide would have more opportunities.

With district elections, your last name would not have to be Todd or Latvala to be the favorite. You might not even have to be Republican or white to win.

These are the arguments that are being drowned out by the opponents.

To be sure, there are some things district elections would not accomplish.

District elections in Pinellas would not guarantee that one of the commissioners would be black. There aren't enough proposed districts or enough black voters to do that. But it may give a black candidate in one south Pinellas district a better shot.

Some referendum opponents point to Calvin Harris, who became the first African-American elected to the commission last year, as evidence that Pinellas does not need districts. But that is misleading. Harris was originally appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles, then ran as a moderate incumbent. His Republican opponent was such an extremist that many Republicans endorsed Harris.

Such favorable conditions may never occur again.

Rod Fischer, executive director of the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County, makes several other arguments.

Some are red herrings, such as the cost of the referendum and adding two commissioners. The expense is minimal compared with the size of the county budget and the positives of district elections.

Fischer also complains that district elections are impossible to support without knowing where the district lines will be. But drawing four districts and three at-large districts should not be difficult. There are any number of ways to ensure fairness, from establishing guidelines to using a redistricting consultant to appointing a citizens committee to oversee the process.

Then there is the argument that Pinellas County government works so well, particularly when compared with Hillsborough, that there is no reason to change. But Marquis and the incumbent commissioners won't be there forever, and unanimous votes are not synonymous with good government.

Take the long view.

What you find is a county government that was too cozy to developers, helped create the mess along U.S 19 and Ulmerton Road, built parks but would not pay for recreational programs, and ignored the needs of the poorer areas of the county until recently.

The most valid criticism of district elections is that they could trigger more parochial, pork-barrel politics. There might be an unwillingness to spend money on countywide projects such as a new jail, the resource recovery plant or emergency medical service.

But that temptation would be countered by the three of seven county commissioners who still would be elected countywide. The four district commissioners would have to work with them.

Fischer said the political action committee, Five is Enough, has raised more than $15,000 and expects to send out more mailings before the Nov. 2 election. Hopefully, they won't be as misleading as a mailing sent with absentee ballots. Among their "five reasons to vote no:"

"More government is more taxes. Two additional county commissioners will increase the cost of government and your taxes."

There is nothing in this referendum that triggers a tax increase.

"More government is less representation. Today all five county commissioners are responsible to every citizen. With seven proposed commissioners only three will be elected by all of our citizens."

But every voter will vote for four of the seven: the three at-large commissioners and their district commissioner.

"More government is more dealmaking. With seven commissioners, county resources will be allocated by political boundaries regardless of need and would jeopardize the Penny for Pinellas."

Wrong. Voters approved the 10-year extension of the 1-cent sales tax. Plans for spending the money have been laid out, and the cities' share has been decided. The current commission or any future commission, regardless of how its members are elected, could change the county's spending plans, but it would risk the wrath of voters.

"More government is unnecessary. There has been no citizen demand to increase the size of Pinellas County government."

But there has been a demand to make government more responsive, which district elections would accomplish.

"More government is less control. Today a simple majority of three sets policy for the county. With seven members it will take a majority of four to establish policy."

District elections offer more control. Voters would find it easier to elect candidates and oust incumbents. District commissioners would be more responsive to constituents and more aware of their concerns.

These are reasonable responses to the opponents' hyperbole, but they are rarely raised.

At a meeting of the East Lake 2000 group in North Pinellas last week, the only invited featured speaker was Fischer. Organizers of the forum said they couldn't come up with a supporter to balance Fischer's arguments against district elections.

"We looked long and hard," said East Lake 2000 president Peyton Johnson, who finds residents have two general reactions to the proposal. "They have no idea what we are talking about, or they are opposed to it."

At an earlier meeting of Pinellas Democrats, the group ended up hearing from two opponents instead of an opponent and a supporter. At still another meeting in Clearwater, Democratic Party Chairman Nancy Whitman said she asked about 60 members of a civic group if they knew anything about the referendum.

"Not one person raised their hand," Whitman said.

This lack of information and public debate is no way to prepare for such an important decision.

There is a strong argument for changing the way Pinellas elects its county commissioners to a combination of district and at-large elections. You just won't find it in your mailbox or hear it in the courthouse, and the reason is clear.

The politicians and business leaders who have power don't want to risk losing it.

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