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A Times Editorial

By default, go with Adams

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

Voters can be forgiven for looking at the candidates in the District 4 County Commission race and asking for a redeal of the cards.

The choice is between incumbent Jim Fowler, a millionaire friend of big business and developers with a reputation for arrogance, and challenger Scott Adams, a boisterous stucco contractor with a checkered past and a shallow understanding of the problems facing the county.

Fowler's greatest accomplishment in his last term, his second on the board, might well have been to open the eyes of residents to the threat that overdevelopment and aloof officeholders pose to their quality of life.

Until September, Fowler, 62, of Inverness had cruised past every challenger he has ever faced in an election. In the Republican primary, however, novices Joyce Valentino and John Thrumston took 60 percent of the vote.

To most incumbents, such a repudiation would be a wake-up call, a warning that they are out of touch with constituents. Fowler, who says it is not his job to represent the wishes of the majority of the people, sees the results as would a student with a D-minus on a report card: Hey, at least I passed.

Fowler can thank the Republican leaders in Tallahassee for making it to the Nov. 5 race.

Last year, to hamstring Democrats in the gubernatorial race, the Legislature suspended runoffs. Had Fowler and Valentino, separated in the primary by 27 votes, gone head-to-head in a runoff, only the most ardent Fowler supporter would have predicted victory.

Fowler caught two more breaks. First, the Democrats inexplicably fielded no candidates. Then, Adams decided to run as an unaffiliated candidate, putting him on the November ballot and preventing the GOP race from being an open primary.

All of which has helped create a race between candidates defined largely by their negatives.

Adams' flaws are obvious. His hot temper, colorful language, abundant conspiracy theories and various legal battles are troubling.

Adams, 36, of Inverness insists that he has matured in recent years. We hope, for his sake and that of his family, that this is true. Does that mean, however, that he is County Commission timber?

Adams' campaign has two simple planks. First, he portrays himself as the voice of the people. That contrasts with Fowler, who is the voice of one segment of the community: powerful business and development interests that have shown their allegiance by flooding his campaign with thousands of dollars.

The second point he stresses, perhaps most significantly, is that he is NOT Fowler. Fowler might refuse to admit it, but there is a tremendous groundswell in Citrus County for anyone but Fowler. By a fluke of timing, Adams is the beneficiary of this protest wave.

Adams is far from being an ideal candidate. That he is the better choice in this race says more about his opponent than about his merits.

Fowler makes no bones about his pro-business philosophy. In itself, that's not a damnable quality, but it can be dangerous when it colors an elected official's thinking completely.

There is much a commissioner can do to facilitate business interests, especially if he has two other like-minded people on a five-member board and a county administrator in lock step with him.

County staff members, the people who make the train of government run each day, are aware of which way the political winds blow. Their jobs depend upon it. Staff members here are ethical, hard-working professionals, but to think that they are immune to political pressure is foolhardy.

Thus, when the building community dumps more than $10,000 into a campaign just before the election, it sends a clear message to the staff and the public. Fowler would have the public believe that this largesse is because of his leadership and business skills. Others might see this as a blatant way to gain influence and access to an elected official.

Fowler's critics say that he doesn't listen to the people, that he is dismissive of their views to the point of arrogance. Fowler disputes the arrogance claim, but agrees that he doesn't try to represent the majority view: "This is not a popularity contest," he says.

His stance shouts, "I know what's best for you." To Fowler, that's sticking to principles and making tough decisions. To others, it's an abandonment of representative government.

Citrus County is at a crossroads. With the Southwest Florida Water Management District saying there is enough water here to accommodate growth through the year 2020, with the Suncoast Parkway extension through the county becoming an all-but-foregone conclusion, with plenty of cheap land and platted lots being available for building and with national chains already building supercenters here, the table is set for unbridled growth.

The only thing standing in the way is the comprehensive plan, the document that is supposed to outline how the county will grow.

Fowler already has already shown that, to him, developers' rights trump public protections. On issues such as the development of Halls River Retreat, the plan to shoehorn a large apartment complex onto a small tract in Beverly Hills and the push for mandatory garbage collection, he has demonstrated his belief that what's good for business is what's best for the county.

If residents disagree, that's their problem. Voters must decide whether that is a true representation of their views.

Adams represents a change, albeit one fraught with risks. He is a wild card, in every sense of the term. But the hope is that he can grow into the job. At a minimum, he gives the public a chance that their wishes will be carried out by a majority of the commission.

With reservations, the Times recommends Scott Adams for the District 4 commission seat.

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