Nearly 300 Wesley Chapel High School seniors studying government and economics came to the Pasco legislative delegation meeting to watch democracy in action. They ended up witnessing a lesson that could have come from Miss Manners.
The high school's performing arts center served as the site of the annual meeting — a time for representatives from local governments, social service agencies, public schools, Pasco Hernando State College, neighborhood civic groups and just regular citizens to get public face time with senators and representatives.
The session, slated to last four hours Monday, faltered at the outset. By the scheduled 9 a.m. start, only Rep. Danny Burgess. R-Zephyrhills, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, had arrived.
Meanwhile, students filled the back rows of the auditorium. A teacher already had instructed them to put away their cell phones when the meeting began.
Their first lesson could have been to define quorum.
Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, appeared on stage at 9:11 and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, arrived in the room four minutes later, which meant four of the six chairs on the stage were occupied and the meeting could begin. Burgess got things started just as the 9:20 a.m. bell rang and some students had to leave to attend other classes. So much for a teachable moment.
A student sang the "Star Spangled Banner.'' Toward the rear of the auditorium at least seven seniors remained seated during the national anthem.
Later, the students and most others in the audience applauded after nearly every speaker.
"I love the enthusiasm today,'' said Burgess, "and on a Monday morning.''
The delegation includes Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. Latvala is an announced Republican candidate for governor. Corcoran may follow suit after the legislative session ends in March.
On Monday, however, there was no public interaction between the two. Corcoran arrived at 9:43 a.m. and he rarely spoke into his microphone throughout the meeting, though he did spend a lot of time chatting with Lee. Latvala didn't attend.
The only speaker interrupted by applause was Don Peace, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, who called for charter schools to be held to the same financial accountability standards as traditional public schools.
Derek Pontlitz of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce attempted to differentiate himself from the rest of the 60 people who came to the podium.
"I'm one of the few speakers today who won't be asking your for money,'' Pontlitz said in advocating for changes to workers compensation laws.
He was right about the fund-raising attempts.
Pasco County wants money for highways, stormwater drainage and a homeless center. Sheriff Chris Nocco would like additional dollars for child protection investigators and for a forensics center in Land O'Lakes. The city of Zephyrhills is pushing for a corridor study to extend State Road 56 eastward to State Road 39 and money to develop a tennis center. New Port Richey advocated for funding for transportation, its water system and the continued restoration of the Hacienda Hotel.
The University Area Community Development Corp. said it had to ax 330 Pasco County children from its Prodigy High Five life skills program as part of a $3.6 million budget cut. PHSC asked for restoration the $1.4 million cut it had to absorb this year.
It was a familiar theme. The Homeless Coalition of Pasco County, Eckerd Kids, West Coast AIDS Foundation, Alzheimer's Association, Sertoma Speech & Hearing Foundation of Florida, Operation PAR, Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, Premier Community HealthCare Group, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas all asked for assistance to aid vulnerable populations.
Some of the requests didn't get a full audience. By 12:20 p.m., the delegation had dwindled to just Burgess, Simpson and Mariano.
Maybe because they'd gotten an earful 40 minutes earlier.
Brandi Geoit of the West Coast AIDS Foundation and an announced Democratic candidate for Pasco County commission asked the legislators to be better role models for the students in the auditorium. Put away the cell phones, cut out the side conversations and pay attention, she told the delegation.
"What they (students) are learning today is that legislators don't listen to them,'' she said.
When Geoit returned to her seat one of the students delivered his own message.
He high-fived her.