September 20, 2002

Two Citizens Who Give Us Cause For Hope


It's easy to be cynical about politics. There's plenty to be dispirited about.

But occasionally something hopeful happens.

Two such things came before Leon County commissioners Tuesday: renaming the Chaires-Capitola Community Center the Dorothy C. Spence Center; and committing the county to go after state and federal money for "ecopassages" on U.S. Highway 27 where it crosses Lake Jackson and becomes a killing zone for migrating turtles.

Commissioners voted unanimously in both cases to do the right thing. Never mind that both were no-brainers. Politicians ought not be denied credit where credit is due, even when private citizens make it easy for them. Congrats, commissioners.

The real salutes, however, belong to the people behind both votes: Dot Spence and Matt Aresco.

Spence is a longtime Chaires-Capitola activist and an oh-so-familiar face to county officials. Aresco is a political greenhorn but a longtime lover of turtles.

Both were rewarded Tuesday by the county for championing their particular causes, but the lesson they have to teach is much broader: In politics - and life - never stop trying.

Spence, 68, is a Leon County native. She describes her powers of persuasion as "direct, cantankerous, but not ugly." Those on her receiving end always get an earful, but she manages to keep it within the bounds of civility.

"I know a lot of the time (county commissioners) are probably thinking, 'God, what is she here for now?' I don't beat around the bush about it; I tell it like it is. ...

"We have to fight for everything we want here in eastern Leon County. County commissioners seem to think we don't exist. I have told them that they ignore us out here."

She credits former County Commissioner Bruce Host, who told her a decade ago that if she wanted the county to see things her way, she'd better organize her neighborhood. She took his advice and went to work, lobbying relentlessly for the construction of the community center and park facilities. She's quick to jump on stormwater and traffic safety issues, too.

"The first thing that Bruce Host told me when I was running for office (in 2000) was go see Dot Spence," said Commissioner Tony Grippa, whose district included Chaires at the time. "When she calls you, you don't make the mistake of having your aide call her back."

The renaming of the community center - she's currently its board chairman - is an acknowledgment of her tireless work on behalf of Chaires-Capitola, the establishment of the center in particular.

She's currently organizing a political fish-fry for Oct. 19 (she'll be cooking the hush puppies) and coordinating a fund-raiser for her sick brother, Chaires native Ernie Cooper, who lives in St. Cloud and needs a liver transplant.

Sticking with it is what Matt Aresco's been doing for more than two years, and an estimated 8,000 Lake Jackson turtles - and possibly a motorist or two - are still alive as a result.

The Florida State doctoral student estimates he's spent $3,000 in the past two years to keep turtles attempting to cross the highway from getting crushed by traffic. U.S. 27 dissects Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson, and turtles answering the call of instinct have frequently been pulverized.

He's installed degradable, temporary fencing along the shoulders of the road to guide turtles and other animals to an underground culvert. It's not fail-safe, but the turtle mortality rate is significantly lower, and the threat to drivers who may slow for the animals and cause an accident is reduced as well.

The 39-year-old biologist envisions a series of permanent underground culverts similar to ones that cross Paynes Prairie State Preserve near Gainesville. All seven county commissioners Tuesday unhesitatingly threw their support to Aresco's effort to seek state and federal dollars for the project. That's just the first step, but the project (check out