Calendar of a “Part-Time” Legislator

Jun 28, 2012 by

While most folks who know me know that I am term-limited and therefore leaving the Florida Legislature, they seem unsure of when, many believing that since session has ended my work is done. The truth is that legislators serve until general election day, when their replacement is officially elected. So my 16 years officially ends Tuesday, Nov. 6 — 132 days from now. But who’s counting?

Legislators generally spend time in Tallahassee during November, December, January and February for weeks of committee hearings, and again from March to May for the 60-day legislative session. So what do the “part time” legislators do when they’re out of Tallahassee? While it varies among the 120 House members and 40 senators, we all keep district offices with staff to help us serve constituents. We attend events, give speeches, hold town hall meetings, make site visits, meet with people in our districts, research issues, draft legislation and try to solve problems dealing with state agencies.

Since this year’s session ended and the special session on the redistricting do-over ended, I’ve participated in a variety of activities. My calendar likely looks different from many of my colleagues due to my love of environmental issues, my upcoming retirement and the differences in our districts.

Soon after returning to Polk County, I was invited to participate in the FWCC Youth fishing tournament at Tenoroc, a state-owned property with excellent recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. Hundreds of young fishing enthusiasts turned out to compete, many of whom were just being introduced to casting a rod and enjoying the great outdoors. During this and any other public event, I am asked to look into a variety of issues. On this occasion it was the need to pump additional water to supplement the lake levels to support recreational fishing.

The next event was a hike in the Lake Wales Forest. I was honored to have a trail named after me a decade ago by then-Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford for my work to expand conservation and recreation areas. On a beautiful Saturday morning, a few dozen enthusiastic trekkers hiked eight miles of the Paula Dockery Trail. On this day, I was asked to look at changing policy to allow hammocking in state parks.

My recent speaking engagements included giving the commencement speech at the last graduation ceremony for the Lakeland campus of USF, which was bittersweet after 25 years of USF’s presence in Polk County. That the students and faculty requested me as their speaker was incredibly touching.

Legislators can’t possibly fulfill all the speaking requests we receive, but I try to honor many of them. They are as varied as they are interesting, with everyone from the senior citizens at the Florida Presbyterian Home, to the wonderful ladies at the Lakeland Republican Club, to the men and women who meet at the crack of dawn at the Citrus Center Kiwanis Club, to the diverse evening crowd at the Dixieland Homeowners Association, to the intimate roundtable discussion among politically active men and women of ABW, a professional business group.

To keep up with developments in the district and constituents doing great things to improve the quality of life and provide needed services, it’s important to be out in the district listening and learning. Recently, I attended the Flag Day celebration at AMI Kids and discovered they had 30 days to close shop because their funding was being cut. This is a highly successful day program for troubled youth in danger of entering the juvenile justice system. The Polk legislative delegation will be working to try to keep the program going, as are Pasco legislators for their local program.

Another recent event was a groundbreaking for a park-and-ride bus lot for Citrus Connection, Polk’s mass transit system. Thanks to a grant, this transit hub with restroom facilities will be built near the entrance to I-4 and will lead to express bus service to Tampa and Orlando.

During the summer, many groups and associations present awards to legislators who were instrumental on issues of importance to their members. I was fortunate to be lauded by several wonderful groups. Student government at USF Tampa recognized Sen. Mike Fasano and me for listening to the students and working in their best interests when they felt powerless in the USF Polytech independence issue. This heartfelt thank you was very special to me.

The Florida Justice Association, representing lawyers with a focus on access to the courts, presented me with the President’s Award. The Florida Wildlife Federation gave its Legislator of the Year awards to Sen. Dennis Jones and me. And the Florida Association of Counties honored me with the Doc Myers Lifetime County Advocate Award for my efforts to defend the concept of Home Rule.

I’m also looking forward to receiving the legislative award from the PTA in a few weeks for my work on behalf of parents and teachers in defeating destructive legislation on the last few days of session. It seemed fitting to invite my parents, who live near the location of the ceremony in Pinellas County.

To spend time with constituents who request a meeting, we schedule office days. In a typical office day, we might meet with individuals or groups on topics that range from education to waste management, from water to child protection services, from roads to prisons and every conceivable topic you can imagine. This is really the crux of being a representative, meeting with and listening to those you represent.

Legislators have different relationships with the media. Some enjoy talking to the press and return phone calls, and some either don’t get the calls or choose not to take them. I try to return all media inquiries. Some days I receive a dozen and other days none, depending on the issues of the day. Often times TV crews will show up with little notice wanting a quick soundbite. Radio shows and TV panels are usually arranged in advance and I’m a frequent guest on each.

Each legislator has his/her own style and schedule, but we all try to maximize our time in the district to meet with constituents and be responsive to requests to share our views and listen to others. Some of us even use social media and have our own columns to communicate and educate. At least for the next 132 days.

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