Candidates for the County Commission pledge cooperation, and a five-person supermajority is a possible outcome.
By BILL VARIAN
Published October 25, 2004
TAMPA - With back-to-back tropical storms providing fresh evidence of where Hillsborough floods, county commissioners moved two weeks ago to raise stormwater fees for fixes.
All four Democrats on the board supported at least taking the matter to public hearing.
Two of the commission's three Republicans voted against the proposal. The third, Ronda Storms, voted to consider a hike, but with the caveat that she may seek an offsetting decrease in property taxes so residents don't get soaked a different way.
The vote illustrates the partisanship that has shaped the decisions by commissioners in recent years on the meat-and-potatoes issues that face local government, from flooding to clogged roads. On many of the big-ticket issues, the vote has tended to fall along party lines, with occasional defections.
With four of seven seats on the commission up for election this year, the balance of power could change Nov. 2. For the second time in recent years, the majority on the commission could turn Republican, with a five-person supermajority a possibility.
Many of the candidates on both sides are voicing a desire to end the partisan bickering.
"Last time I checked, there's no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole," says Democrat Bob Buckhorn, who is running for the District 6 at-large seat, in one of his standard stump lines.
"I'm a uniter, not a divider," says Brian Blair, his Republican opponent, borrowing a line from President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.
Republican incumbents Storms and Ken Hagan easily fended off multiple challengers in their party's August primary. They now face little-known opponents with little campaign money.
For Storms, it's hypnotist Jean Batronie, running without party affiliation. Hagan's challenger is Carrollwood Democrat David Cutting, a graphic artist, and write-in candidate Don Fulmer.
The other two races are for open seats, where new blood is guaranteed. Both parties are fielding candidates to replace longtime Democratic politicians Jan Platt and Pat Frank, icons in government for more than two decades.
Platt is leaving because of term limits. Frank, one of the Democrats known to jump sides to join Republicans to block new spending plans, is leaving midterm to pursue the Clerk of the Circuit Court vacancy left by Richard Ake. Here are how the candidates for the two seats frame their partisan ties:
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Buckhorn, the Democrat, emphasizes his record in public office. He served on the Tampa City Council, a nonpartisan body, for eight years after being a top assistant to former Mayor Sandy Freedman.
His record defies easy pigeonholing. He clashed with then-mayor Dick Greco repeatedly on spending plans, providing the lone vote against using community investment tax money for anything other than infrastructure, and for using gas taxes to help pay for a trolley. He was also a champion of doubling the homestead exemption for low-income seniors.
Buckhorn also frequently clashed with strip club owner Joe Redner, pushing the 6-foot rule governing how close nude dancers can get to their patrons.
Still, during his commission campaign, Buckhorn has voiced support for raising school impact fees and expressed his willingness to consider other tax hikes to pay for roads.
"I plan to leave my partisan label at the door when I start the job," Buckhorn said. "I will look at everything on its merits."
Blair said he, too, will be open to his colleagues' ideas, regardless of whether they express a partisan viewpoint. He said he grew up in a family of Democrats but that his life experiences have brought him to more traditionally Republican views.
A former wrestler and gym owner, Blair talks about adapting the concepts of business to government. As a former business owner, he says he's more in tune than Buckhorn with the notion that when money is tight, regular people look for ways to save money, cutting out luxuries.
Blair says government should do the same. He would propose rewarding county employees with a cut of any money-saving proposals they suggest, and it wouldn't be capped like the one the county has now. He opposes raising impact fees, noting that they get tacked onto home prices and put ownership out of the reach of working families.
"I don't have all the answers," Blair said.
But being an effective commissioner is a matter of being reasonable, he said, noting, "You cannot argue with the voice of reason."
His campaign literature has done less bridge-building, labeling Buckhorn a liberal for considering tax hikes he says he would oppose.
The Democrat and Republican District 7 candidates have spent less time trading jabs. Both have expressed a desire to reach across party lines.
Republican Mark Sharpe, a private school teacher and Naval reservist, ran for Congress three times in the 1990s. In his last race, he pointed out tax increases supported by Democrat Jim Davis in the state House.
Sharpe has consistently expressed opposition to raising taxes or fees as a commissioner. But he says he has toned down the rhetoric and will listen respectfully to people on the commission who feel differently than he does.
"There needs to be a sense of cooperation, and not just between board members, but between the county and the city of Tampa," Sharpe said. "We need to not look at every project as though someone is trying to take advantage of someone else. I just think we need to look at what is good."
His Democrat opponent, Denise Layne, has seen things from both sides of the aisle. She switched to the Democratic Party after her fourth-place finish in the Republican primary two years ago for the seat ultimately won by Hagan.
Her views haven't changed, she said, particularly when it comes to spending issues that so sharply divide Republicans and Democrats. Government approaches problems backward, looking first for money and then solutions, she said.
A case in point: a stormwater fee hike, which she said commissioners considered before identifying the most urgent needs or trying to address them without raising money.
"What you saw was your typical partisan discussion about stormwater," Layne said. "You don't throw money at it and then decide how we're going to fix the problem."
The third candidate in the race is Redner, the strip club owner and property investor who is running without party affiliation. He says there's a reason he's running without a party label.
"I think the Republican and Democratic parties have become special interest groups," he said. "It costs so much money to campaign for office that you can't just get money from individual people in the public.
"So candidates go in there beholden to the parties and to developers, and I think they have to toe the party line."