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Pasco County legislators hold annual constituent meeting

LAND O’ LAKES — Pasco County lawmakers got an earful Wednesday as more than 50 speakers lined up for a chance to get their undivided attention for three minutes apiece.

Most were faces familiar to the lawmakers, the face of people who come every year to ask for state funding for drug prevention or homeless services or for diversion programs such as the PACE Center for Girls and AMIKids.

For newly elected Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, her first delegation meeting was an education. “I was up there taking notes, and I honestly didn’t realize four hours had passed,” she said. “The thing that made the biggest impression was just seeing how much need is out there — especially for mental health services.”

Some speakers make the same plea every year. Elaine Togneri petitions for Florida to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

“For 25 years we have been fighting to have gender discrimination removed from the U.S. Constitution,” she said, and thanked House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, for giving the bill a hearing last year. “I’d like to request this time the bill be passed out of committee and get a floor vote.”

Others get the legislators’ attention by raising an issue for the first time. Dade City resident Kim Whitt asked them to amend the state law that regulates homeowners associations. She wants a requirement that HOA meetings are “open and accessible” to all members. Whitt said she and her husband have been excluded from their HOA meetings, which commonly are held in locations that aren’t wheelchair-accessible.

“That was a new issue,” said state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity. “We’ll definitely look into it.”

County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the county’s top priority was to get funding approved this year for Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas to open their first “Innovative Training Centers.” The program, based on training methods used by German manufacturers, allows high school students to apprentice at local companies and learn job skills.

“It’s innovative. It’s practical and it enhances the programs at our local community colleges,” Starkey said.

The meeting also served as a venue for the ongoing tensions between the county school district and the newly renamed Pasco-Hernando State College. Last year PHSC President Katherine Johnson asked the delegation to improve the college’s state funding, which at the time was lowest among all Florida colleges. She also asked the Legislature to change the state statute that required colleges to waive tuition for high school students who attend classes via dual enrollment.

Now local school districts are required to pay tuition and fees for dual-enrollment students, and PHSC’s funding level has moved from the bottom of the list into the top 10.

This year Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning asked for financial relief from the college’s administrative fees and textbook costs. “We could never come to an agreement as to what the administrative costs were,” Browning said.

He wants Pasco’s dual-enrollment students to have a choice of colleges — now they’re limited to PHSC.

Some speakers asked legislators to continue their fight against a proposed constitutional amendment to permit the sale of medical marijuana. Others, such as Zephyrhills resident Jeffrey Aker, argued that marijuana dispensaries would be an economic boon and job creators for Florida.

Dozens of Summertree residents spoke in favor of Sen. Wilton Simpson’s bill, the Consumer Water Protection Act, which could help facilitate the public takeover of private water and wastewater utilities like the one that serves their retirement community.

Simpson is a Republican from Trilby.

Weatherford pledged his support for the bill, which is in the Community Affairs Committee. “Rep. (Richard) Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes) has threatened to take my dog hostage if I don’t pass that bill,” he said.

The spat between Lake Jovita residents and St. Leo also could be resolved in the upcoming session. Murphy said she would introduce a local bill that effectively de-annexes 85 homes in the gated subdivision from the town. The delegation unanimously approved of the bill.

Legg also planned to close the loophole in the state’s open meeting law that allowed the Dade City Commission to vote on an item last year during a workshop even though it was not on the published agenda. He introduced Senate Bill 718 on Thursday.

“Transparency and accountability at every level are paramount to good government,” Legg said. “This bill speaks to the essence of a democracy and ensures the opportunity for public participation and discussion.”

The delegation holds public meetings each year in preparation for the legislative session. The 2014 session begins March 4.

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