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Growth concerns shape election: County Commission District 4

Opponent Scott Adams says incumbent Jim Fowler has ignored constituents' wishes to gain the favor of developers.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

INVERNESS -- Jim Fowler and Scott Adams agree on this much: Voters have a distinct choice when they cast their ballots Nov. 5 in the District 4 County Commission race.

But it seems that's where the agreement ends.

Fowler, the two-term incumbent, says he is focused on providing the infrastructure to meet the growing county's needs.

During his eight-year tenure, the county has built a 40,000-square-foot addition to the courthouse, planned a new building for the property appraiser and tax collector, upgraded the sheriff's radio system and bought modern voting machines before the 2000 election.

At his urging, commissioners voted to hire a consultant to draft a 25-year transportation master plan showing where roads should be built or widened.

"The way that we handle growth will be the legacy we leave to our children and our grandchildren," said Fowler, a Republican.

Non-party challenger Adams describes Fowler as a prodevelopment commissioner who hasn't listened to his constituents. Adams vows to listen and turn the tide of a County Commission that is often split 3-2 on controversial issues.

"Those three are not representing the best interests of Citrus County," Adams said, referring to Fowler and commissioners Roger Batchelor and Josh Wooten.

"I do know that we have two commissioners that make sense," he added, referring to commissioners Gary Bartell and Vicki Phillips. "And I will support them."

The 3-2 vote that readily comes to mind is the approval in February of the plans for Halls River Retreat, a 54-unit time share condominium complex in Homosassa.

Fowler has taken significant heat for his vote in favor of the project. A small group of Homosassa residents ran anti-Fowler newspaper ads leading up to the Sept. 10 Republican primary, and 60 percent of the voters in that election cast their ballots for his opponents, Heatherwood activist Joyce Valentino and small business owner John Thrumston.

Fowler slipped past Valentino with just 27 votes after the manual recount, making the election the closest Citrus County Commission race in four decades. Without runoffs in this year's election, Fowler advanced to the Nov. 5 ballot even though he did not receive more than half the vote.

"There's been a lot of controversial issues over the years, issues that don't lend themselves to your popularity," Fowler said.

Fowler said he wasn't a fan of the condos. "I wish they were somewhere else, but that wasn't the issue," he said.

The developer had met the county's standards, Fowler said, and therefore had a right to build.

Adams said the commission majority rushed to approve an inaccurate plan over the objections of thousands of residents who signed petitions and wrote letters against the project. The approval spawned four legal challenges and appeals to the state Department of Community Affairs.

"When you've got 3,500 people screaming bloody murder, you'd better stop and think about what you're doing," Adams said.

Aside from Halls River Retreat, Fowler said, commissioners rarely vote along 3-2 lines. He questioned Adams' pledge to vote with Bartell and Phillips: How can he say which way he'll vote before he knows the issues?

"I don't know why voters would vote for somebody who will just agree with two other people, no matter what the issue is," Fowler said.

Adams said he planned to use common sense as his guide on the issues. As a result, he would likely arrive at the same positions reached by Bartell and Phillips, the other commissioners he credits with common sense.

Both men say they bring a businessman's sense to the role of commissioner.

Fowler, a retired official with Waste Management Inc., said the county had tightened its business practices under his leadership.

The county has adopted zero-based budgeting, meaning each budget is built on the needs for that year, not based on numbers carried over from the previous year.

The county also saved about $2-million a year by turning the jail and ambulance service over to private companies, he said.

"You have to use your business acumen to find better ways to deliver services to the people who pay the bills here," Fowler said.

Adams, a stucco contractor with an excavating business, also has experience with farming and waste disposal. He says that gives him a better understanding of the county's everyday operations.

"I'm not just sitting in a chair somewhere making decisions," Adams said. "I've been the guy who's built them houses, who's built them roads -- the stuff that keeps a county going."

The race has been as much about the two candidates as the issues.

Fowler's campaign contributions -- $10,700 in the last two-week reporting period, most from builders giving the maximum $500 allowed -- have raised questions about Fowler's relationship with the development community.

"If there is a perception out there that I am beholden to any particular group, it isn't so," Fowler said. "I think all of the people who contribute to my campaign don't want anything other than my best efforts to do what I think is best for the county."

By contrast, Adams has accepted small donations from residents but has largely funded his own campaign.

Other questions have swirled around Adams, however: mainly whether his rowdy past is truly behind him. Alluding to Adams' history at a recent candidates forum, Fowler said at least he had never gone to jail or had a drug problem.

Adams' last arrest was in 1993, and he said he had since settled down with his family and sworn off drinking.

"Everything's a stage in life," he said. "The older I get, the more I figure it out."

Adams offers himself as a change, saying the county should accept growth but not accelerate it.

"I don't want to turn Citrus County into downtown Tampa overnight," Adams said.

Fowler offers a continuation of the past eight years, pledging to do what he thinks is right, even when facing people who disagree.

"I think that people believe I stand on principles," Fowler said. "They know my history, they know I'm ethical, and I will do what I think is right."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or .

The candidates

JIM FOWLER, 62, a Republican, is finishing his second term on the County Commission. He is president of Jim Fowler Enterprises, which owns oil change centers and self-service car washes in Inverness and Homosassa Springs. Fowler also is president of Job Site Services, an Inverness construction equipment rental company that opened in November 1999. From 1986 to 1992, Fowler was a Central Florida division president for Waste Management Inc. Born in Renshaw, Ill., Fowler moved to Citrus County in 1971. He is married and has an adult daughter.

* * *

SCOTT ADAMS, 36, who has no party affiliation, is a lifelong Citrus County resident who lives in Inverness. At age 18, he started his own business harvesting fruit and vegetables. He owns Scott Adams Stucco and a logging operation near Hernando. He is married and has two children.

On the issues

Mandatory garbage collection

Adams: Opposes, saying the lack of competition between haulers will drive up costs in the long run

Suncoast Parkway

Fowler: Supports extending the road through Citrus County.

Adams: Awaits results of the Turnpike Enterprise's three-year study on the proposed extension.

Gas tax

Fowler: Awaits results of 25-year transportation master plan before deciding whether a 2-cent increase is needed.

Adams: Opposes increasing the gas tax.

Tsala Apopka lake chain

Fowler: Says county has pleaded with state agencies to de-muck and restore the lake chain, but has had little success.

Adams: Would work with TOO FAR and the Lake Tsala Apopka Basin Recreation and Advisory Board to develop a plan for restoring the chain. Would support Commissioner Vicki Phillips' suggestion to use tourist tax revenue to help pay for lake improvements.

Halls River Retreat

Fowler: Voted for the 54-unit time share condo project, saying the developer met all of the county's standards.

Adams: Says the project is too intense for Homosassa, and opponents were not heard at the commission meetings.

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