If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation. This is a piece of advice the fictional advertising executive Don Draper offers his protege Peggy Olsen in the TV show Mad Men. Peggy later uses the line to win a client when the two compete against each other.
These words of wisdom could be the motto for how Citrus County has been governing recently on both the school system side and the county commission side.
At the school board meeting ten days ago, a presenter introduced three local students as National Merit Scholarship finalists, an honor bestowed on only a small percentage of students nationwide. Board member Thomas Kennedy asked the presenter how many finalists a county the size of Citrus should have as a proportion of the overall students nationally, a leading question to demonstrate we have a higher percentage as a result of our perceived superior school system.
After a quick calculation, the presenter informed the board we should have a couple more finalists than what we had for a county our size. Kennedy interjected with a follow up question to instead ask how many we have in comparison to neighboring counties in Florida, which got the desired response.
This was seen again as a report released this week showed that for the first time the county’s third grade state tests scored less than above average. When asked about it, Kennedy responded to the Chronicle that Citrus is not the only county experiencing a drop. This type of repeated framing by comparison is not helpful to improving our quality of education here, but it does change the conversation from failure to success.
Let’s shift to the county. Many topics were discussed among several meetings this Tuesday that lasted from 9 a.m. until after 5 p.m. These issues included code enforcement, the road resurfacing contract with D.A.B., creating a year-round slow zone for boats through Homosassa, a grant to receive funding for law enforcement body cameras, a landscaping contract gone bad in the Oak Park section of Sugar Mill Woods and lastly a discussion regarding the travel budget for commissioners. Even this isn’t an exhaustive list of what was discussed but it is the major highlights.
Let’s focus on the first and the last issues mentioned. The board recognized a problem is occurring in which land owners in developing neighborhoods are erecting unpermitted sheds and renting them on AirBnB or setting up campers and allowing people to exceed a two-week maximum mandated time of stay.
Frustrated by the lack of enforcement capability that the county has to control what people do on private property, Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach asked if the county could declare sites a public health crisis instead of a code enforcement violation which would enable a process of permit-less, warrant-less government intervention.
The desire to help is understandable. The stories that residents who live near these sites have told the commission are heartbreaking. A scarier road to go down, however, is one in which the county actively looks for ways to sidestep due process and private property rights to find a quick fix solution.
The most contentious discussion took place regarding the reimbursement of travel funds for commissioners. As of 2019 after the board become frustrated with former Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith’s travel to national conferences of interest groups, the travel policy is that the BOCC members have a $16,000 pool that they can be reimbursed from provided the board votes in a majority that the travel was official county business.
The issue Tuesday was that Commissioner Holly Davis, who defeated Smith in 2020, took a trip to Sarasota for a Chamber of Commerce event on economic prosperity. Commissioner Ron Kitchen pointed out that the board had heard a presentation on Prosperity Citrus but hadn’t taken an official position on it and thus the summit was not county business. Commissioner Scott Carnahan agreed.
The discussion was exactly the type of insightful talk the board needs to have, and to their credit, they are willing to engage in. However, the result was to change the policy, which was on display as working well, to instead allot each commissioner a travel budget free of board approval.
This was a step back from transparency, but like the student achievements and the code enforcement on private property, it is a reframing of an issue to better fit the government needs.
After all, if you don’t like what they are saying, change the conversation.