Jim Jones' Eastword column: World of local government seems to turn upside down

September 23, 2012 

Education boards usually seems positively genteel compared to bare-knuckle county commissions and city councils.

The halls of education are filled with smart people, lots of Ph.Ds and master's degree holders.

If any local governmental body is nonpartisan, it tends to be those with an education mission.

So what the heck is going on in Manatee County?

Consider that State College of Florida President Lars Hafner recently survived a no-confidence vote by members of the SCF Board of Trustees.

The trustees deadlocked 4-4 on the no-confidence vote.

While the vote failed, it was hardly a vote of confidence.

Many questions remain about Hafner's future at SCF, and the trustees who are so bitterly split over the job he is doing.

Also consider the Manatee School Board, whose members have been sharply divided for some time now.

It was a big shock to the nervous system when it was disclosed Sept. 7 that the school district had a multi-million dollar deficit in its reserve.

Making it all the more perplexing is that Superintendent Tim McGonegal brought a strong finance, rather than education, resume to the job.

McGonegal resigned abruptly.

A previously undisclosed deficit so close to the deadline for completion of an annual budget is a major uh-oh.

To their credit, school board members this past Monday managed to find a way to correct the deficit and unanimously pass the 2012-2013 budget.

* * *

The Manatee County Commission, which has had plenty of dysfunction between feuding commissioners, these days looks like an well-oiled machine compared to the Manatee School Board.

The commission recently took a very deliberate step forward to install red-light cameras in parts of unincorporated Manatee County.

Commissioners originally approved use of the cameras in 2009 but postponed implementation, pending action by

the state Legislature and negotiations with the camera vendor.

No one can accuse county commissioners of rashly making their red-light decision. They did take their time.

Those who oppose the cameras will disagree with that commission vote.

But no one can dispute that there are too many drivers who dangerously make a practice of running red lights.

The county's first two red-light cameras will be turned on Oct. 15.

One of the cameras is located at 53rd Avenue West and 34th Street West, and the other is at 57th Avenue East and 15th Street East.

The fact that red-light cameras are coming to the area is largely a credit to Tara resident Melissa Wandall.

Wandall waged a lonely, one-woman campaign, lobbying Florida lawmakers for legislation that would help reduce carnage on the highways caused by red-light runners.

It became a cause for a woman who was not looking for a cause until her husband, Mark, died when a red-light runner hit his vehicle.

He was 30 years old.

There were years of setbacks and disappointments with the Legislature before she got what she wanted, the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act in 2010.

A key ally in that struggle proved to be former state representative Ron Reagan of East Manatee.

In 2010, former Gov. Charlie Crist came to Lakewood Ranch to sign a copy of the bill, just a few miles from where Mark Wandall died seven years earlier.

No one who was in that room that day could fail to be moved by the sight of Melissa Wandall and her daughter Madison watching as Crist signed the bill. Madison is the daughter that Mark Wandall never got to see or hug. She was born a couple of weeks after his death.

Now, nearly 2 1/2 years later, the county is considering seven locations where red-light cameras may be installed.

The decision on where the next cameras will go has not been made yet, a county official told me this week.

One of the locations proposed is Tara Boulevard and State Road 70, where Mark Wandall lost his life.

Given the history, it's hard to imagine that Tara won't be on the approved list for red-light cameras.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1

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