Panel says no to charter in Pasco County

With a one-vote margin, opponents of a charter-style government in Pasco County killed a proposal that had the backing of the county’s legislative delegation.

In an 8-7 vote, a 15-member appointed panel opted not to write a charter that could have significantly changed the way Pasco County’s government operates.

The vote came after the county’s five-member legislative delegation – State Rep. Richard Corcoran, State Rep. Amanda Murphy, State Rep. Danny Burgess, State Sen. Wilton Simpson, and State Sen. John Legg – had presented their case for pursuing a charter form of government. The charter could have included term limits, single member districts and a recall procedure to oust elected officials.

About 30 people attended the Aug. 24 committee meeting in New Port Richey.

After the vote, Corcoran expressed disappointment. He said he would prefer that voters had the final say on a charter.

Still, he said, “I’m glad we had the conversation. We had a good vetting. I’m happy.”

The seven votes favoring a charter came from panel members appointed by the delegation and two members appointed by Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore.

Corcoran had urged the Pasco County Commission to create a charter commission earlier this year that would have been required, under state law, to produce a charter.

Under that scenario, commissioners would not have been able to amend the charter document and voters would have the final say.

Commissioners resisted that approach, instead opting for a nonbinding panel which had the option of recommending a charter or not.

If the panel had approved a charter with a super-majority vote, commissioners had said they would present the matter to voters, without change, in a 2016 referendum.

But for a majority on the panel, the case for a charter didn’t pass muster despite assertions that other counties with charters were better off than Pasco.

“Where is this fantasy, premier, preeminent county?” asked panel member Chuck Grey. “What are we aspiring to be? Tell me a county we’re aspiring to be like.”

Delegation members repeatedly hit on the theme of voter accountability and empowering voters.

“There’s nothing bad when we talk about accountability,” Burgess said. “I believe a lot in autonomy.”
However, as a former Zephyrhills’ mayor, Burgess had one caveat, if a charter were adopted.

“I would prefer that we preserve local governments’ ability to determine their own destiny,” he said.

Simpson dismissed the notion of an elected county mayor, an idea initially raised by Corcoran when he presented the charter idea to Pasco County commissioners.

“My personal opinion is that would be a dreadful idea,” he said.

He did, however, find single member districts “not a bad idea.”

Corcoran urged the committee to include ideas they liked and let others alone. “If the county mayor is controversial, chuck it out the window,” he said.

Committee members Randy Maggard and Mike Ryan felt the committee’s vote was premature, and wanted to explore individual items, such as term limits and single member districts.

“We have not looked at all the issues in any depth to know right now,” said Ryan.

During public comment, only one speaker supported a charter.

“We have seen many county commissioners who have stayed on an enormously long time,” said New Port Richey resident Hugh Townsend. “I think turnover would be a good idea.”

Former Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri said many unanswered questions remained about why Corcoran and others were pursuing a charter.

“You don’t want turmoil in Pasco County,” she said. “These changes could cause turmoil with government, when this is a time for stability with our economic growth.”

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano wondered why all the focus was on accountability at the local level.

“It concerns me that those who just left Tallahassee and didn’t do what they needed to are concerned about accountability,” he said.

Legislators recently ended a special session to redraw the state’s district maps under order from the Florida Supreme Court. They recessed without agreeing on a map, making it likely that the court will redraw the map.

At least for now, the charter issue in Pasco seems moot.

A grassroots group, the Pasco County Citizens Charter Coalition, has expressed interest in a petition drive to collect 45,000 signatures required by state law to establish the charter commission that Corcoran wanted. Coalition members had anticipated that Corcoran would partner with them.

However, the lawmaker said he had no plans to join in their efforts.

“We’ll see. I’ll keep working for ways to make all levels of government accountable,” Corcoran said.

Published September 2, 2015

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