Jackson: Will Zephyrhills voters provide new material?
ZEPHYRHILLS - Remember when Zephyrhills was fun? Like when the city council voted — hastily, as indicated by subsequent election results — to change the name of Sixth Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard? And when the city manager attempted to shoehorn a traffic circle into the heart of downtown without council’s approval? How about when the same city manager got into it with the head of the firefighters’ union over a billboard-sized campaign sign in the union guy’s truck parked behind city hall? Or the then-city councilman who used his column in one of the weekly newspapers to trash a local military veterans’ club as a haven for drunks? Yeah. Good times. And we haven’t even mentioned any of the recurring shenanigans involved in management of the city’s airport and its adjacent golf course, attempts to round up feral chickens, or the bad feelings that arise whenever redesigning downtown bubbles to the surface.
It is with this modest sample of highlights as a backdrop that we report our current disappointment with Zephyrhills. Monday night, throughout the final gathering of city council candidates before Tuesday’s election, there was no fizz in the City of Pure Water.
Not that the participants lacked the potential to effervesce like Mentos in Coca-Cola, which helped explain the standing-room turnout of more than 80 likely voters at the Alice Hall Community Center. At a forum two weeks earlier, things reportedly heated up between ex-Councilman Manny Funes and Charles Proctor, who thumped Funes in the 2011 election, over some slight, real or imagined.
This flash of old-school Zephyrhills — so titillating, so full of promise — gets better when we consider the peppery Funes, 68, managed to annoy Proctor even though he ducked a rematch to challenge, instead, two-term Councilman Lance Smith.
Alas, Cliff McDuffie, unofficial mayor-emeritus and spoilsport diplomat, was having none of it. As half the moderating team, McDuffie set all the ground rules. “We want to find out what they think about things,” he said. And not, in a cruel April Fool’s twist, whether they can burrow under each other’s skin.
For many, the election will be a referendum on the incumbents’ mad dash last December to force out the former mayor over alleged misdeeds unconnected to his elected office. (We recall advocating a six-month leave of absence, then a review.) And while there is much love for Danny Burgess, the 26-year-old mayor-elect, a fair, if prickly, question would have been: Now that passions have cooled, was the push to impeach the mayor, a position favored by councilmen Smith and Kent Compton, hasty?
Incredibly, the subject never came up. Amend that. It was scrupulously avoided, as if the elephant — moving easily through the crowd in jeans and a striped knit shirt — was not even in the room. Still too soon?
And furthermore: We skipped the Braves and Phillies for this?
But there is hope. If voters come through, Zephyrhills may yet recover its quirkiness.
Incumbents Smith and Compton are solid, reasonable, practical and predictable, ideal reflections of today’s Zephyrhills. You like things as they are — tax rates stuck in 2002; services maintained despite the Great Recession; new employers lured with modest incentives; connections to Pasco’s shakers in Tallahassee — then you like Smith and Compton.
Yawn city, right?
By contrast, the challengers — Funes and Rose Hale, 45, owner of a thriving downtown café that bears her name — are triple shots of political espresso. In his first go as a councilman, Funes was by turns a one-man public works department and, as the board’s resident conspiracy theorist, the reliable source of claims of misdeeds against city officials (a pattern that endures in the current campaign). Hale, meanwhile, speaks hopefully and promises change, but is vague on the details.
Hale’s lofty musings suggest she has not dug deeply into the city’s issues, leaving the impression she would engage things only as they emerged. Is the airport’s best future to remain recreational or turn commercial? Max out the resources, she says. That’s easy to say, but hard to forecast, as council members will be asked to do.
She also laments Zephyrhills’ problematic infrastructure — “You can’t build a big city on a broken foundation” — but left dangling how to pay for repairs.
Perhaps Hale, a skillful entrepreneur, reserves her evident gift for anticipation for her café, where it’s only her investment at stake. Still, even in Zephyrhills, it’s not 2008 anymore; voters may prefer candidates whose skill with addressing challenges extends beyond simply identifying them.
On the other hand, maybe they don’t. Maybe, come Election Day, Zephyrhills voters will decide to take one more walk on the wild side.
And all Pasco’s newspaper columnists say: Make my day.