The two sides in the debate over Lakewood Ranch incorporation do not agree on much. But one thing they have in common is a tit-for-tat dance that is probably confusing the incorporation debate more than anything else.
Each time one side issues a press release or a newsletter, the other side issues a response to answer accusations and raise questions, which are then responded to by the other side.
To one extent, it could be a smart tactic on the part of the Friends of Lakewood Ranch, the group formed in opposition to creating a city straddling two counties out of the current and future Ranch. After all, opponents really only need to raise enough doubts about incorporation to limit support, and they can win.
But opponents raised a fair point on our June 2 editorial when we said that it was too early for them to be conducting a petition against the incorporation. While we would like to see an incorporation vote next summer, or the results of a straw poll in August, the petition is a legitimate tool for gauging opposition and trying to stave off legislation that would call for a formal vote.
Proponents, on the other hand, must make a convincing case that major change is necessary for a better future for Lakewood Ranch residents and businesses.
Those who are convinced it is time for the Ranch to become a city have been at it for about two years, creating a proposed charter, holding public meetings and attempting to convince people that it is the right thing. Last summer, they commissioned a study by Orlando-based Fishkind & Associates to determine if such a change was feasible. The study concluded that incorporation is financially feasible now and going forward from here without adding new taxes.
So in the past year, the backers, known as the Incorporation Study Group, have been holding more meetings. The East County Observer sponsored a debate between the two sides in May at The Polo Grill.
There is one major step left before the proposal can be given to state Rep. Greg Steube and state Sen. Mike Bennett, both representing Manatee County: the straw poll.
State statute does not require the poll, but it has become an accepted necessity for Florida communities incorporating — there have been four in the past five years. Because it is not required, the straw poll can be conducted in any fashion — a point about which the opponents have raised a worry. They are concerned that incorporation proponents will skew the poll in a way it cannot be trusted.
Nonsense, says Keith Davey, a primary mover in the Incorporation Study Group.
“We need to do something that Steube and Bennett will be comfortable with, something statistically valid,” he said. Davey said the group is talking to reputable polling firms to conduct the poll and is looking at options between phone calls and mailings. His organization expects the final form of polling to be complete by the end of this month, and “the preferred method” is to poll all 9,000 registered voters in Lakewood Ranch.
We strongly encourage the incorporation group to make sure that happens. While recognizing that the more thorough the straw poll, the more expensive it becomes, the issue is too important to take shortcuts.
Although only a small percentage of people are likely to return the poll, it will be the best snapshot and give local legislators a valid indicator of support for incorporating.
Opponents have argued that August is too soon for the straw poll and that it will happen when a lot of people are out of town. Backers are rushing it, they say.
Rushing is a relative word. Two years probably seems like ample time to those who have been studying it and are in favor. It may seem like rushing to those who are just starting to pay attention or oppose it.
But because of congressional redistricting that needs to be done during next spring’s legislative session, the normal Dec. 1 deadline for such legislation is moved up to Oct. 1. That means that if it is not done in August, a vote would not occur for another year.
As it stands, the legislation would call for a formal vote in June 2012 if passed by the next Legislature. So if the straw poll is done in August, it allows for a year for opponents and proponents to educate Lakewood Ranch voters. While we are not taking a stance on the August straw poll, it is not clear that more would be known two years from now rather than one year from now.
At some point, it becomes time to do it or don’t do it, and move move on.
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