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A Times Editorial

County needs board to govern campaigns

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

Kurt Browning should take a bow. The supervisor of elections is entitled to bask in the afterglow of a smooth-running primary election in Pasco County at the same time chaos ruled in South Florida.

He should enjoy the moment. Just not for long. There is more work ahead. Browning, after the November general election, should renew his effort to form a Fair Campaign Practices Board in Pasco County.

It could be modeled after the volunteer citizens committee in Pinellas County, which asks candidates for public office to sign a pledge to campaign fairly, and then arbitrates if candidates are suspected of violating that promise. The practice does not eliminate negative campaigning. But, it does give candidates an opportunity to rebutt what they believe are inaccurate accusations. The board has no punitive authority. Media coverage of the panel's work is the sole recourse for candidates who are wronged.

Browning raised the idea of the board two years ago shortly after David "'Hap" Clark's unsuccessful campaign for tax collector. The ensuing presidential election recount, voting equipment purchase and redistricting delayed any serious work on the matter. Browning said this week he intended to resurrect the effort after November. It is an appropriate move.

Clark, incidentally, ran for county commission this year, but did not renew the tactics from two years ago which included an unsavory direct-mail piece misrepresenting employee relations within the tax collector's office. Though his opponent, incumbent Commissioner Steve Simon, expected a similar attack, none came.

Clark ran a gentlemanly race with advertisements emphasizing his experience as a school administrator and restaurateur in a campaign funded almost exclusively from his own pocket, according to his campaign financial reports.

In a handful of candidate forums, he chatted about his family's longtime ties to Pasco County. Roots, however, didn't translate into support from old acquaintances. Developer Bud Brown, the Oakley family, former Commissioner Ed Collins and even ex-water lobbyist Clyde Hobby aided Simon's re-election effort.

While Clark was staid, two other campaigns complained their opponents distorted their records in direct-mail advertising hitting mailboxes just before Election Day. In the state House District 45 Republican primary, Dunedin Mayor Tom Anderson bristled that John Legg's late mailer distorted his record in office. And supporters of unsuccessful judicial candidate Declan Mansfield were critical of John Renke's literature that featured the family dog and blasted Mansfield for ensuring due process is accorded accused criminal defendants.

In such disputes, speed is essential. That means dedicated people would need to be on the campaign board. In the 2000 election in Pinellas, for instance, a candidate complained about a late mail piece four days before the election. The committee heard the case and ruled within 48 hours.

Except for lamenting to journalists, candidates have no such recourse in Pasco County. Establishing a citizens' Fair Campaign Practices Committee would change that.

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