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A Times Editorial

Andrews, Kroner, Martin best choices for fire district

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 2000

Even when things are going well at the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, somebody finds something to complain about.

If the complaints were coming from the residents who pay taxes to fund the ambulance and fire service, we would be very concerned. The same would be true if the complaints originated among the trained professionals who deliver that high-quality service.

But that is not the case, and it never has been. Instead, the people who complain the loudest always seem to be the commissioners, who just never seem comfortable with their success. This inexplicable phenomenon is most visible during election years, and this one is no different.

The commissioners are unpaid, non-partisan volunteers who are elected to serve four-year terms. This year there are three seats up for grabs and voters have five candidates from which to choose. The top three vote-getters will win.

This time around the candidates' discontent is centered on one chief issue -- Chief Michael Morgan, the district's top executive for the past five years. Up until now, Morgan has enjoyed the consistent support of three commissioners, Eugene Wright, Gene Panozzo and Al Kroner. But Kroner is up for re-election and Wright called it quits after a lengthy tenure on the board. Dennis Andrews, a frequent critic of Morgan, is on the ballot again, and if he's re-elected, Morgan's future could rest with one of the three newcomers that voters select.

Two of those challengers already have expressed skepticism about Morgan's performance. They are Jeffrey Hollander and Donald Knutson. The third, Richard Martin, remains neutral on his evaluation of Morgan.

We think the chief is doing a good job, especially considering the constant scrutiny he's under from Andrews and Bob Kanner. There's always room for improvement, of course, and one area where Morgan might do better is his communication skills, as well as his ability to accept constructive criticism.

But there is no reason to suspect that Morgan won't carry out the wishes of the board -- when and if its members ever agree on what they want him to do.

He may never get the chance if Knutson gains office. He has already said he'd like to look elsewhere for a chief. But making such a predetermination on a personnel matter indicates Knutson may be closed-minded on other issues, too, which eliminates him from our consideration.

Of the remaining candidates, Andrews is the strongest, despite his run-ins with Morgan. As an instructor at the state fire schools in Ocala, and as the former chief of the Spring Hill district, Andrews has a depth of of knowledge about fire operations and budgeting that no other candidates possess. And, of course, he has four years' experience as a commissioner.

Kroner also has four years on the board, which gives him an edge. But his hands-off approach to policy-making is what truly sets him apart from Andrews and the other candidates. Kroner is a businessman and he understands that the day-to-day operation of the district is best left to professionals like Morgan. Kroner also is a calming voice among the commissioners, who too often lower themselves to sniping while wallowing in minutiae.

Martin is the best of the newcomers. He has waged a methodical and energetic campaign and has kept his criticisms to a minimum while scrutinizing the district's revenue and expenditures. We believe he will enter the job with an open mind and do the best he can to protect the public's interest.

At a time when the population of Spring Hill is poised to boom with the opening of the Suncoast Parkway, the commission should focus on developing a plan to address growing demands for service. Balancing the district's resources will require strategic planning and fiscal discipline in order to continue the best service for Spring Hill residents.

Examining population growth estimates, setting up long-range plans and studying the possible need for a tax increase in the next four to eight years should be priorities for all the candidates, as well as the commissioners who are not up for re-election until 2002. The focus should not be on Chief Morgan. On Nov. 7, we recommend Andrews, Kroner and Martin to Spring Hill voters.

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