Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Elected officials frustrated when the public won’t obey

Back when I was a reporter for The Bradenton Times, I’d cover the usual array of government bodies – the county commission, the city commissions and the school board – but there were other bodies that were also comprised of elected officials from those bodies.

One of them was the Metropolitan Planning Organization, known as the MPO. The one I covered was the Sarasota-Manatee MPO, and its main area of concern was the two-county area of Sarasota and Manatee counties in Southwest Florida.

The MPO held meetings every couple of months, and its membership was drawn from the Sarasota and Manatee County Commissions; the Sarasota, Venice, Bradenton and North Port City Commissions; and other government bodies with elected representatives. They would generate a lot of paperwork, including agendas and background material, but while they had an impressive-looking website back then, almost none of the agenda information was available online. This, by the way, was pretty common back in 2009-10. Port Manatee, for example, had a nice website but almost no information about its meetings (agendas, background material, etc.) They liked to keep the media and people in the dark.

One of my least-loved memories was a Port Authority meeting where the new website was debuted. For a half-hour, attendees were shown how to use a website. After nearly 15 years of having the Internet around, I doubt if anyone there needed to be shown how to move a mouse and click a button.

The MPO meetings were not very exciting, though advocates of the BANANA theory of development would show up if there was the threat of a road being built anywhere or expanded. BANANA means “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone,” and these folks, who lived in houses and drove on roads, were convinced that everything worthwhile had already been built, and one more project might destroy the area. Their extreme rhetoric meant they were usually dismissed as cranks.

Along with endless discussion of the wonders of roundabouts (which brought out the critics in droves) there was the endless discussion of U.S. 41.

U.S. 41 through Sarasota and Manatee counties reminded me of U.S. 1 on the east coast through Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Once upon a time, before I-95, U.S. 1 had been the main access road through that area but had become home to some of the worst areas of many communities. The usually uncoordinated traffic lights meant getting anywhere could take a long, long time on “Useless 1,” as it was derisively dubbed.

Economic redevelopment projects in various areas would seek to restore U.S. 1 to its former glory – if it ever had any – but most of them just spent money on high-priced reports and overpriced consultants.

U.S. 41 had a similar fate. The connector of the city of Sarasota to the city of Bradenton, at some places, was a six-lane superhighway with a 55 mph speed limit and old-growth housing developments on either side. Some parts were quite nice; others were dangerous even during the day.

But the big thing for the MPO was that there was a bus line that connected Bradenton and Manatee, route 99. The counties periodically talked about merging their bus systems, but route 99 was where it had actually happened.

The trouble was that many people insisted on driving their cars instead of taking the bus, and this was the goal of seemingly every local government: to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation. The fact that if you were going shopping, a car offered a trunk and the chance to visit several stores and buy from them was lost on the elected officials. Convenience was another factor, and if you were traveling at night, you definitely didn’t want to be on the buses in some areas.

But the big thing, for me, was that none of the officials who attended the MPO meetings ever used the bus themselves. The meetings were held on the campus of a college just off U.S. 41 and near a bus stop, and parking was always a problem. You’d see each elected official show up in his or her car – or SUV – in their designated parking spaces. Of course, the media showed up that way, as well as the other folks.f

I, of course, would drive my car to the meeting and then go to the office in Bradenton, up U.S. 41 to the news site’s offices, where I’d write up my story.

And at every meeting thereafter, there’d be the discussion of why people wouldn’t use the public transportation and instead insisted on driving themselves in their cars.

Too bad the elected officials couldn’t look at their own behavior and get an insight into the way the rest of us behave.

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August 12, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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