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Trio aiming to balance images

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002

The primary race in County Commission District 4 has even the most faithful Republican stalwarts split.

After making tailored campaign speeches, hopefuls Bob Kanner, Robert Schenck and Paul Sullivan each failed to sway the county Republican Executive Committee to endorse his candidacy.

Committee chairman Frank Colletti said he was "proud" to have each representing the party, but noted, "Each one has his own constituency within the party." With party rules requiring 60 percent support to make an endorsement, he said, almost no one expected a clear mandate.

Hampering the selection, some party members have said, is the baggage weighing down each candidate's positive attributes.

Voters dumped Sullivan just two years ago, for instance, amid complaints he was arrogant and demeaning to the public. Kanner has a reputation for micromanagement and secrecy as a Spring Hill Fire Rescue commissioner, and his response to an ongoing sex scandal among firefighters has tarnished his image -- especially among some women. Schenck, meanwhile, has no record at all.

The candidates, of course, try to counterbalance the negatives. In speeches and debates, Sullivan talks about his knowledge of county government, and his past successes reducing the property tax rate. Kanner touts his ability to manage budgets as a fire commissioner. Schenck offers himself as a fresh face with new ideas.

With no runoff election this year, it's winner-take-all in the Sept. 10 GOP primary, with the winner facing incumbent Democrat Chris Kingsley in November. And Colletti acknowledged that personal preference, as much as anything else, will affect the outcome.

Bob Kanner

Long a creature of Spring Hill fire politics, Kanner, 51, never hid his political ambition. With his second term as fire commissioner ending, he jumped into the County Commission District 4 race even though he lives in District 2, where Nancy Robinson is running for re-election this year.

"My wife wants to move to Barony Woods (a subdivision inside District 4), and that's where we're looking," Kanner explained. "For me not to make my wife happy would be ridiculous. . . . I will be living in the district before Election Day."

State law requires a winning County Commission candidate to live in the district he will serve by the general election.

Upon announcing his bid, Kanner became a student of the county. He started attending commission meetings and visited Ridge Manor, south Brooksville and other points he rarely reached, trying to learn residents' concerns.

Though he admits to not having an insider's perspective, Kanner now has at least a basic understanding of matters as wide-ranging as Withlacoochee River flooding and Article V funding of courthouse operations and construction.

If there's one thing he wants to stress in his campaign, though, it's a desire to bring what he considers improved fiscal management to county government.

"There's a terrible waste of money going on," Kanner said.

The county has spent about $500,000 on consultant fees, for instance, he said. "To add insult to injury, a lot of these companies were hired from outside the county."

He lamented that the county went a year without an active economic development program, causing a loss of potential tax income from new and expanded businesses. Perhaps worst, he said, was that the commission overspent its 2001-02 revenue, used up large shares of its reserves and balanced its 2002-03 budget using one-time income sources to cover ongoing expenses.

"We have to stop the wasteful spending immediately," Kanner said. "You learn the difference between wants and needs, and don't be afraid to say no to wants."

He has promoted pooling of government resources to save money on insurance, supplies and other purchases. The savings could be used to improve employee pay and benefits, he said, or to reduce the tax rate.

The government can serve the public using taxes generated by rising property values and continued growth, he said, and rates should not go up. Kanner twice proposed reducing the Spring Hill fire district tax rate, but failed to convince a majority of the fire commission.

On other issues, Kanner has supported the county skate park, opposed the absorption of the Township 22 fire district, called for annual comprehensive plan reviews and backed the county's new code review committee. He has suggested using road repaving funds on limerock roads, and opposed the creation of a special tax for law enforcement.

Despite his desire to focus on issues, Kanner has spent some time reacting to other matters, such as a 1993 bankruptcy. Sullivan questioned whether Kanner could manage county finances if he could not manage his personal affairs. Kanner explained that the bankruptcy, resolved eight years ago, stemmed from a business deal gone sour.

Kanner also had dueling injunctions with his neighbors, Romeo and Zaida Figueroa, for protection against repeat violence in 1996. The issue centered on a dispute involving Kanner's dog and the neighbors' child.

Kanner said the neighbors' daughter threw bottles at his dog, then Mr. Figueroa threatened him, and he called the police. Mrs. Figueroa claimed in an affidavit that the dog went after her daughter, and when her husband reacted, Kanner said he would "kill us first" before he would let anything happen to his dog.

"I did what any citizen should do, which is not take the law into their own hands," Kanner said.

He has faced a handful of complaints, all unsubstantiated, that he conducted fire district business in private. And though he forced out former fire Chief Mike Morgan, Kanner denied being too controlling over staff, saying instead he simply was following through after Morgan failed to follow district policies.

Most recently, Kanner has faced a firefighter sex scandal that remains under investigation. His opponents have blasted him for failing to lead the district well in its time of trouble. Kanner has responded that, as an official, he reacted properly, given the advice of the investigating detective and the district lawyer.

For his part, Kanner has refused to bash his opponents, though he has not been above the quiet suggestion that something bears looking into.

If elected, Kanner said, he will be available to residents and willing to hear their concerns.

"There are elected officials that confuse arrogance with professionalism. You cannot accomplish anything with arrogance," he said. "The people are paying for a service. The county is a business, and the people have a right to be heard."

Kanner has raised more than $15,000 for his campaign. His endorsements include the Hernando County Marine Industry Council and the Spring Hill firefighters union.

Robert Schenck

Before announcing his candidacy, Schenck was an unknown in party circles. Colletti said that, before meeting Schenck at a November executive committee meeting, he had never even seen the 27-year-old schoolteacher.

Through candidate forums and door-to-door visits, Schenck slowly has spread his word.

Among the three candidates, he is the least apt to speak about specific issues. Rather, Schenck focuses his platform on increasing public confidence in local government.

He calls it the "No. 1 major issue."

"There is basically none," Schenck explained. "Two of the biggest complaints are inaccessibility and non-accountability. . . . (Commissioners) don't answer to anybody."

He wants to conduct monthly evening town hall meetings in different areas of the county, similar to those the board tried and ended previously because of limited attendance. He also would set up an Internet site on which he explains all his votes, and would seek regular "approval ratings" from residents.

"Nobody is perfect. People make mistakes," he said. "It takes a big person to learn from his mistakes and go on."

Second on Schenck's priority list is promotion of "positive economic growth."

He complains that the county has few well-paying, professional jobs beyond the government and school district to keep young people here. To change that, Schenck suggests offering short-term property tax reductions to companies that make long-term commitments to the area.

He also supports spreading impact fee payments over three years to such companies, and possibly short-term land grants on county-owned property to businesses that want to build here. For existing companies, he proposes creating a grants coordinator position that would help businesses locate and apply for grants that might help them grow.

The third plank of his platform is getting the commission to concentrate on big-picture issues such as comprehensive planning and infrastructure development, and to stop intruding into smaller matters such as how tall a fence can be or where a shed can be placed.

"I think we have more than adequate staff to recommend that, and the board should never have its hands on those things," Schenck said.

On other issues, he has opposed the creation of a law enforcement special tax and the county takeover of Township 22 fire services, and has suggested that county employees who earn lower wages should get higher-percentage raises than those who earn higher salaries. He does not support creating more rules, ordinances and policies, stating, "The less government, the better."

He has pledged to set aside 15 percent of his pay, if elected, to create a fund that would help low-income senior citizens pay for prescriptions. A teacher of homebound students, Schenck said he would resign, if elected, to serve as a full-time commissioner.

Though his political slate is clear, Schenck has one item his opponents have said might show he is not suited to serve -- his job evaluation from the 2000-01 school year, the most recent one available under state public records laws.

The evaluation shows that his supervisors at Central High School rated Schenck "below standard" in three areas: presentation and knowledge of subject matter, management of student conduct, and demonstrated planning and use of technology in the classroom. He received an "unacceptable" rating under "demonstrates sense of responsibility."

The review stood in stark contrast to glowing evaluations from the two years before. The next school year, Schenck no longer was assigned to Central.

Schenck said he did not recall the evaluation, and noted he was hired back as a teacher the following year. He also said he was nominated by students in two of three years for teacher of the year honors. His former principal, Dennis McGeehan, would not comment.

Overall, Schenck said he wants to bring fresh ideas into the mix.

"People want somebody who is not a politician, but who cares about the community," he said.

Schenck has raised about $3,000 for his campaign. He has not received endorsements from any major organization.

Paul Sullivan

Perhaps more than his competitors, Sullivan, 57, has a reputation to live down.

Republican voters threw him out of office just two years ago, and some say they still remember why. More than anything, they said, it was his condescending demeanor as he voted to remove commercial boats from residential Hernando Beach, to force Istachatta and Nobleton unwillingly into the new county fire district and to not fully fund recommended raises after promising to be a voice for county employees.

Some also remember the now infamous episode, which Sullivan denies occurred, when Sullivan had a female employee kneel on the floor to check whether her outfit was too short. Others recall how, after leaving the commission, he attempted to grab a handicapped parking space outside the courthouse for state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite's Brooksville staff. (Brown-Waite fired Sullivan weeks later for speaking to reporters after she told him not to.)

Several activists and insiders have said Sullivan should have waited until the District 5 seat, where he lives, comes open in 2004. He plans to rent a home in the district if he makes it to the general election.

But Sullivan said he could not sit back and watch the current commission undo the things he fought for as a commissioner.

"This present County Commission, more than any other in recent history, has made local government appear mediocre or, at best, second-rate," Sullivan said, as he declared his candidacy in January.

"The County Commission elections of 2002 shall give the voters the opportunity to make needed adjustments," he said. "They can continue down the present path, or they can elect those who will return to Hernando County a common sense, ethical government."

Since losing his re-election bid, Sullivan said, he has spent much time evaluating what he might have done differently.

"I've seen the light on many issues," he said. "Probably the vote I regret the most was the consolidation of fire districts."

He acknowledged that residents of Istachatta and Nobleton resented being treated differently than High Point and Hernando Beach, which commissioners allowed to opt out. Also, he said, it has become clear in hindsight that the county did not have adequate plans to create a viable fire-rescue district, much less to serve northwestern Hernando.

"I'm working very hard to let people know that in all the votes I took in four years, that was the one vote I regretted most," Sullivan said. "If I have a way, if elected, I would do what I can to correct it."

He does not feel the same about his vote to remove the fishing boats, explaining that commercial businesses do not belong in residential areas. Neither would he change his position on raises. The county has only so much money to spend, he said, and the commission gave the best raises it could afford.

"I supported the lowest-paid county employees to get the larger raises. I still support that," Sullivan said.

Conservative financial strategies dominate much of Sullivan's campaign rhetoric. Like before, he stresses the need to reduce the property tax rate and says he would cut back the county legal and social services departments as two cost-saving measures.

He wants to see even more reductions, if possible.

"If I got into office and I could convince two other people to agree with me, there would be an automatic freeze on new spending programs, and then there would be a serious conversation on spending," Sullivan said.

He does not, however, support a special taxing unit for law enforcement. He called the idea a "gimmick" and "asinine," and figured it was designed to give the commission more room to raise taxes.

From the outside, Sullivan said, it also has become apparent that the commission overreacts to a handful of callers or speakers in the commission chamber. The results often emerge in unnecessary regulation, such as the ordinance placing restrictions on sheds, he said.

The county should focus on enforcing the rules it has, Sullivan said, and add more code enforcement officers during nights and weekends. But commissioners also must remember that one or two complaints do not a crisis make, he said.

Overall, he said, his track record is one of success. He said he worked well with Democrats and Republicans in the creation of a residential road repaving program, the reduction of property tax rates, the establishment of billboard controls and other actions.

"I know the county extremely well. I know what the issues are. And I've had an opportunity in the last two years to review what I accomplished, what I was unable to accomplish," Sullivan said. "I would like to return."

Sullivan has raised about $4,600 for his campaign. He has no major endorsements.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

The issues

Vision for the future

KANNER: Calls for "smart growth" with more regular planning for the future. Opposes county ordinances governing retail store design and landscaping as too restrictive.

SCHENCK: Supports intense development in some areas, to allow green space preservation in others, but opposes government intervention in telling people where they can build homes. Cites suburban Orlando as a good example.

SULLIVAN: Calls for restriction of urban sprawl, more mixed-use development.

Takeover of Florida Water Services

KANNER: Opposes any government takeover.

SCHENCK: Supports condemnation, as opposed to a buyout by the Florida Governmental Utility Authority.

SULLIVAN: Supports condemnation, as opposed to FGUA buyout, but prefers keeping the utility in private hands.

City-county relations

KANNER: Calls for better interaction among all government entities. Supports city's plans to expand.

SCHENCK: Says better communication is needed to reach satisfactory compromises on key issues that divide the city and county.

SULLIVAN: Says city must be treated as an equal. "What is good for the city is also good for the county."

Taxes

KANNER: Supports property tax rate reductions. Wants full budget review for wasteful spending.

SCHENCK: Supports tax rate reductions.

SULLIVAN: Supports tax rate reductions. Wants immediate freeze on new spending, pending a full budget review.

Roads

KANNER: Supports current paving plan.

SCHENCK: Opposes ordinance that requires spending $2-million above gas tax revenue for road paving.

SULLIVAN: Supports current paving plan.

Economic development

KANNER: Supports deferred property taxes as an incentive to new businesses.

SCHENCK: Supports temporary property tax reductions and the spreading of impact fee payments over time to businesses that make long-term commitments to the area.

SULLIVAN: Supports delaying impact fees for developers who construct spec buildings until they fill their spaces.

Government buildings expansion

KANNER: Opposes at this time.

SCHENCK: Supports buying land early, using bonds to cover costs.

SULLIVAN: Opposes construction plans.

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