Norm Roche says the rule that forced him to quit his job to run was applied unfairly.
By MICHAEL SANDLER
Published October 11, 2004
CLEARWATER - In order to run for the Pinellas County Commission, a county rule forced Norm Roche to resign from his job with the utilities department.
But Chief Deputy Jim Coats is still working while campaigning to be sheriff because the same rule does not apply to sheriff's deputies.
Roche, who is running for an at-large seat, thinks it's unfair and is telling voters it's another sign of a "good ol' boy" network that is actively working against his campaign.
"It's not a matter of if a written policy exists," said Roche, a Democratic candidate for the seat being vacated by Barbara Sheen Todd. "It's a matter of what's right and realistic."
Roche also questions why County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala is back on the election canvassing board after recusing herself during the August primary. The board prohibits members from being candidates or "active participants" in a campaign.
Latvala has publicly supported Roche's opponent, Republican Ronnie Duncan, and her husband, former state senator Jack Latvala, is working on Duncan's campaign.
"I'm tired of this incestuous political system," Roche said recently while campaigning.
Latvala said refraining from political activity does not mean she needs to surrender her rights under the Constitution. "I'm a citizen and I have a right to vote," she said. "And I have a right to support certain candidates."
And county officials say Roche needs to consult his county rule book, which has a policy that prohibits employees from engaging in political activity.
Roche, who was employed as a public relations specialist with the utilities department, at first requested an unpaid leave of absence until after the election.
But County Administrator Steve Spratt denied the request.
"There really wasn't much discretion on my part," Spratt said. "The rule states that a person cannot be a candidate for public office while an employee of the county. That speaks for itself."
Roche resigned in June, but he said the policy is applied selectively. "(The policy) says no county employee," he said. "It doesn't say no county employee except the Sheriff's Office. I'm not trying to cause him any grief. My point is there was another option."
But Dave Libby, the county's personnel director, said the county's policy does not include sheriff's deputies. It is the only constitutional office outside the unified personnel system.
Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice said the state oversees sheriff's deputies and that tradition began years ago, the result of intense lobbying by police unions to keep law enforcement officers separate. Under the state policy, Coats would only have to resign if he had challenged an incumbent sheriff.
"So if the county has a resign to run law, that's their business," Rice said. "It has no bearing on the Sheriff's Office."
Stephen Craig, a political scientist and director for the graduate program in campaigning at the University of Florida, said the distinction is not an issue of fairness.
"You might think that is unfair, but if that's what the law says, that's the law," Craig said. "If you don't like it, change the law."
The canvassing board oversees voting in Pinellas and ultimately certifies election results. The County Commission chairperson, a county judge and the supervisor of elections are traditionally the members.
When the county chairperson faces a conflict, the County Commission is asked to select an alternate. This August, Commissioner John Morroni served in Latvala's place on the board during the primary. Latvala said an assistant county attorney advised her to step aside after she attended a fundraiser for Duncan.
Susan Churuti, the county attorney, said her staff was being cautious.
"It was more of an appearance issue," she said. "More of an appearance of impropriety than an illegality. We were very conservative about giving advice. Legally there was no impediment."
One problem facing Latvala this time is the schedule of other commissioners. Three are seeking re-election, so they cannot serve. The other three have conflicts with the canvassing board's schedule, which meets three weeks before the election and at least two weeks after. Should the election end up like 2000, the board could be meeting into December or even the new year, Latvala said.
Latvala said she has not attended a fundraiser for Duncan since the primary.
"The law doesn't say you can't be supportive of the candidates you intend to vote for," Latvala said. "The law says you shouldn't be actively involved."