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Pinellas needs a few good leaders

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 1999


They are as reliable and familiar as a sunset on the beach.

Florida Power supplies electricity and opens its wallet for good works in its hometown of St. Petersburg and along the Suncoast.

Pinellas public schools are among the most integrated in the country.

Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg provides quality medical care to everyone, without regard to the patient's income or religious dictates.

Now all three of these touchstones are facing stern tests. In each case, government's ability to have a voice in their destiny may be limited. But few elected leaders are testing those limits.

Perhaps the sale of Florida Power's parent company to an out-of-state utility, the approaching end of racial ratios at public schools and the new focus on the bottom line and religious directives at Bayfront are unavoidable. But each situation also tells us something about political leadership.

Once again, Pinellas' shortage of charismatic, aggressive public leaders has been exposed. There isn't anyone like Gov. Jeb Bush, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney or Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, whose popularity and influence cross partisan lines and political and business boundaries.

Where are the powerful personalities, the strong voices calling for reasonable electric rates, integrated schools and a renewed commitment to indigent care unfettered by religious constraints?

Our politicians seem comfortable watching three long-held values slip away with a few frowns and mumbles. They are generally content to accept what seems convenient and unavoidable instead of forcefully advocating for the best interests of the community.

It is hard to see how anyone besides Florida Progress' shareholders benefit from Florida Power's sale to Carolina Power & Light. Rates aren't expected to go down and most job cuts are expected to be here. Yet Florida regulators do not have the authority to review the sale.

There is little Florida legislators could have done to create a climate in which Florida Progress executives would not have felt pressure to sell. The future is in deregulation, and it is not government's fault the company was unprepared to compete. But where are the local voices pressuring our new power company for competitive rates and a commitment to its Florida work force?

The resegregation of Pinellas schools is nearly as certain as the sale of Florida Power. Once a source of pride despite the hardships of busing, integration enforced by racial ratios at each school has few defenders left. The federal judge who oversees the 1971 court order has lost interest and wants out, leaving school officials feeling as though they have few options.

Pinellas School Superintendent Howard Hinesley and the School Board are poised to spend millions to build new schools in predominantly black St. Petersburg neighborhoods so children can attend classes close to home. Their hope that new buildings will attract white families who voluntarily select those schools sounds optimistic. It also takes new magnet-type programs that the school system may have difficulty finding the money to create.

Yet the building plans and a new school-choice scheme that few parents understand are treated as foregone conclusions. The community's silence, the possible result of inattention or ignorance of the coming changes, is taken as acceptance or indifference by elected leaders.

Why aren't leaders speaking up now to question the impact of these plans and test the assumptions behind them before construction starts and a judge rules and school administrators say everything has been decided?

Then there is Bayfront Medical Center.

This is where government stands the best chance of preserving and protecting long-held community expectations. They may be late, but St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and City Council members are now asking pointed questions.

Given the evolving health care industry, it is reasonable that Bayfront entered into an alliance with other hospitals to help hold down costs and that the council approved it two years ago. While the hospital is still losing money, it probably would be losing more if it were still going it alone.

What is unreasonable is the concessions Bayfront made to its Catholic partners in restricting elective abortions without informing the council or the public. Bayfront executive Sue Brody's explanation to the council last week, that it "was a very small component" of the BayCare Health System agreement, is not a satisfactory answer.

The council meeting was enlightening in other respects.

The mayor and the council are unusually united in their concerns. They recognize the importance of the issues at hand and Bayfront's role in the community. Judging from his body language and his ill-advised lecturing of the council, BayCare president Frank Murphy does not.

As council member Bill Foster pointed out, the city's options are limited. It is unrealistic to suggest St. Petersburg will break its lease agreement with Bayfront and raise millions to take over the hospital. The council also is not going to dictate medical care and staffing levels, no matter how many disgruntled hospital employees call.

The prudent course is to keep the lawyers working on the church-state issue in hopes of a reasonable resolution. Meanwhile, the mayor and council members should exercise their rights to examine the hospital's records. They should insist that Bayfront live up to its agreements to care for the indigent and for all patients regardless of sex, race, color or creed.

Prediction: Pinellas voters one day will be asked to tax themselves to pay for public health care. When the time comes, it will help if public support for Bayfront Medical Center has not been poisoned.

Thoughtful, dynamic politicians do not win every fight. They take risks and find innovative ways of presenting arguments. Too often in Pinellas, no one rises to make the case.

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