Great idea, not so great execution
About ready to open that closet door and rip out a skeleton.
Some of you are wincing, others are scratching your heads. We have a port? Cool.
Well, no. I mean yes. We have a port DESIGNATION. It’s a star on the map, one of 15 in Florida.
And we have a story. It’s a political story and it includes two of the three District 4 county commission candidates.
This is what happens when a potentially decent idea gets blown to bits by a government insulated within itself.
Former Commissioners Rebecca Bays and Winn Webb served together while the port talk took place and now are on the District 4 ballot with John Murphy Jr. The Aug. 23 primary winner is elected.
Port Citrus existed by name only for many years before an out-of-town lawyer whispered sweet nothings into the ears of willing Citrus County officials.
This was early 2011, shortly after Bays was elected. Webb had already been in office for two years.
The idea was to create Port Citrus on the Cross Florida Barge Canal, where “trans sea lifters,” or TSLs, would transport containers between the port and large ships in the gulf.
Forget that “trans-sea lifters” was only a concept at the time. The county was totally sold.
Commissioners and the administration loved it. The public, not so much.
The lawyer gave a presentation at the county commission meeting in February 2011, explaining all this in detail. Commissioners didn’t ask a single question and they wholeheartedly supported it, along with $50,000 in lobbying money for the law firm to help make the necessary state law changes.
Well, there was a reason for their seeming lack of curiosity. Commissioners had already seen the entire presentation, having been driven one by one by the county administrator to the lawyer’s Tampa office. Of course they had no questions. The’d already been answered. The public knew none of that until it we wrote about it a month later the Chronicle.
(Full disclosure: This lawyer later sued me, claiming libel for my stories about his role in Port Citrus and other county projects. Total garbage. He dropped the lawsuit before any depositions started. If you’re bored, go to the clerk’s website and look up case No. 2015-CA-745A.)
The county created a port authority and went about joining port councils, becoming one of the port counties in Florida.
Bays and Webb were both port supporters, Bays especially. She could not understand why anyone in the public would have any problem with this. Port Citrus would create jobs and provide some economic stability.
All true. But keeping the public in the dark until the wheels were already in motion was a poor tactical move in my view. Those five separate car trips to Tampa should have been a red flag that this probably wasn’t the best approach.
Why bring this up now? Consider:
— Port Citrus, if put together in a strategic way, is a potential economic game-changer in a county desperate for one. While it was somewhat thrown together 11 years ago and has sat on a shelf since 2016, the fact that the designation still exists in the state’s eyes opens up all sorts of possibilities.
I realize not everyone agrees with that way of thinking. But we should be talking about it.
— Speaking of talking about it, the biggest error commissioners and administration made then was leaving the public out of the early conversation. A brand new concept like that needs more public voices at the start, not less.
The error of Port Citrus was not the idea, it was the execution of the idea.
And that brings us to 2022.
Regardless of who is elected in Districts 2 and 4, we’re all excited to see what a cohesive board can do. Most people want their elected officials to succeed. They also want to feel a part of that success.
Should Port Citrus rise to the forefront of the new board, let’s hope commissioners don’t forget one important element in that discussion:
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.