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Politics

The key vote in two County Commission races comes Tuesday

One race will have no general election opposition; the other will feature a write-in candidate in November.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published September 3, 2006


When it comes to picking winners in two Pinellas County Commission races, voters will make their key decisions Tuesday, not in November's general elections.

That's because one County Commission race consists of a primary only, with no general election opposition.

And the other commission race will lead to a November election featuring only a write-in candidate who probably would make history if he won.

In the Democratic primary for District 2, incumbent Commissioner Calvin Harris faces Norm Roche, a former county employee who made a strong showing in a 2004 bid for the commission but failed to win.

The seat is at-large, meaning Democrats countywide can vote.

Until late July, it appeared the primary would be open to all voters, regardless of party. Then, on the final day of qualifying, Roche's brother filed as a general election write-in candidate.

That closed the primary to all but Democrats and stamped out Harris' expected support from Republicans.

Democratic party purists applauded the move. Others have called it devious and questioned whether Brian Roche will actually campaign.

The chances of Brian Roche's having an impact in the general election are remote. Supervisor of Elections Office officials say they can't recall a write-in candidate ever winning a commission race.

In District 4 in North Pinellas, Republican incumbent Susan Latvala faces political newcomer Ray Brooks.

Brooks, an advocate of mobile home park preservation, faces tough odds. Latvala is a dug-in incumbent with a deep donor pool.

In contrast, Brooks has had to open his own checkbook. You'll see his money at work on election day, when a plane will fly low over the district towing a "Vote Ray Brooks" banner.

With no general election opposition in the District 4 race, all district voters can cast ballots, regardless of their party affiliation.

* * *

Norm Roche, 44, is now a features editor and designer for Imago Magazine, a Tampa Bay monthly. He has long aspired to serve on the County Commission.

In his view, the commission has contributed to rising housing costs by being too willing to grant land use changes to residential developers, fueling speculation.

Harris and the current commission are fostering a development-at-will policy, Roche contends. Before granting land use approvals, he wants to require developers to demonstrate a need for their condominiums and town homes.

Roche also advocates a greatly expanded bus system in Pinellas that would assume responsibility for transporting high school students from the School Board.

The move would save the School Board money, Roche says, while introducing young people to the virtues of public transportation.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board, which Harris sits on, has failed to think creatively and moved too slowly to expand services, Roche charges.

Harris, like his fellow incumbent Latvala, gets considerable financial support from business interests, including developers and land use attorneys. Some of them are active in Republican circles.

Roche believes the support makes it difficult for Harris to put the public's interest first.

"I have the distinction of being able to go into office without a debt or obligation to anyone," Roche said.

Harris, 64, is a Pinellas native. A longtime educator, he was a provost at what was then known as St. Petersburg Junior College when Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the commission in 1997.

He's retained office since.

Harris has a lengthy record of service to charity organizations, particularly those that focus on youth welfare issues.

He's served on a variety of boards, including the Agency on Bay Management, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, Pinellas Planning Council and the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Roche's criticisms, Harris says, are shortsighted and bogus.

Harris says Roche's overly restrictive approach to redevelopment would strangle the county's economy and lead to costly legal battles with property owners and developers.

Throwing up barriers to the tearing down of the old and building up of the new in Pinellas is foolish, Harris argues, both because the process is inevitable and because it can bring beneficial change if well-managed.

Harris points out that while on the PSTA board, he's overseen the introduction of trolley service, route expansions and a dramatic increase in ridership.

While the pace of improvements to the bus system and the county's efforts to create below-market housing may not satisfy Roche, Harris says real progress is being made.

He argues that Roche lacks a deep familiarity with the issues the county faces and is consequently ill-prepared to lead.

He also questions Roche's judgment. Roche has defended Democratic Party leader Ed Helm, whose wife was recently reprimanded by the state party for heading a PAC that has taken sides in the Democratic primaries.

And at a candidate forum in Oldsmar on Thursday, Harris suggested the Roche brothers' closing of the primary was an attempt to steal the election.

"I have not hid behind my brother or my political boss," Harris said in an interview. "I have just been out there campaigning and thinking about the future of this county."

* * *

Brooks, 55, operates a one-man Web site design company and was drawn into politics by the disappearance of mobile home parks. He was forced to move and purchase another manufactured home after developers targeted the park he was living in.

Brooks grants that he has limited political experience. Faced with questions on transportation, tourism and the preservation of land, Brooks offered few details at Thursday's candidate's forum. He stressed that he would have an open door policy and strive to gauge what the public wants to see done in those areas.

Brooks supports a moratorium on the redevelopment of mobile home parks, arguing they are a necessary pool of affordable housing.

He accuses Latvala, whom he called "smug," of wanting to eliminate all parks in the county.

"She's not for us," Brooks said. "She has an agenda."

Latvala, who has long championed increased funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment and is now president of the Florida Association of Counties, said Brooks lacks a grasp of the issues.

She says she understands how difficult it must be for park residents who are displaced, but the county cannot deny property owners the right to sell their land to developers.

Further, she argues, much of the mobile home stock in the county is poorly constructed and has no place in hurricane country.

Latvala, 57, says she is proud of an ordinance the county created that requires developers to help find housing for displaced residents and pay their rent for up to two years.

She also points to other efforts the county has made in the affordable housing area, such as committing $30-million to a housing trust fund over the next three years.

If given another four years, Latvala said she will focus on reducing the crowding at the county jail by supporting and expanding programs that offer alternatives to incarceration.

Like Harris, Latvala argues she is the most prepared and capable candidate.

"His knowledge of what a County Commission does does not seem to be very deep," she said of Brooks.

DISTRICT 4 is a single-member seat located in North Pinellas.

RAY BROOKS, 55, is making his first run for public office. He was born in Somerville, Mass., and came to the bay area when he was an infant. Brooks grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from St. Petersburg High School. He has spent much of his career in the technology field and now operates a Web site design company. He is single and lives in unincorporated Clearwater.

ASSETS: Home

LIABILITIES: Credit card debt

SOURCE OF INCOME: Business income

WEB SITE: www.voteraybrooks.com

 

SUSAN LATVALA, 57, has been the District 4 representative since 2000. She was born in Louisville, Ky., and graduated from Shelby County High School. Before joining the commission, Latvala served two terms on the Pinellas County School Board. Latvala has served on numerous government and nonprofit boards. She is now president of the Florida Association of Counties. Divorced with two grown children, Latvala lives in Palm Harbor.

ASSETS: Home, cash investments

LIABILITIES: Mortgage

SOURCES OF INCOME: Salary, investments

THE JOB

County commissioners set a countywide property tax rate, oversee departments that provide government services, make land use decisions and set budgets for the sheriff, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections. There are seven commissioners. They serve four-year terms and are paid $87,565 a year.

THE CANDIDATES

 

DISTRICT 2 is an at-large seat, meaning the candidate must live in the district, which covers the western half of North Pinellas but is elected by voters countywide.

Calvin Harris, 64, a Pinellas native, was appointed to the County Commission by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997 and has retained office since. He began his career as a teacher and was a provost at St. Petersburg College before joining the commission. He has served on numerous public service boards and created a nonprofit group that provides academic support to students who live in Clearwater's Greenwood area. Harris, who is married and has three children, lives in Clearwater.

ASSETS: Home, stock, IRA account.

LIABILITIES: Mortgage, credit union debt.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Salary, pension.

 

Norm Roche, 44, was born in New Jersey. His family moved to Pinellas County in 1971. Roche graduated from Pinellas Park High School. He worked for the county for a decade and served as chairman of the county Employees Advisory Council. He was doing public relations for the utilities department when he left county government in 2004 to run for a commission seat. Roche took 45 percent of the vote, losing to Commissioner Ronnie Duncan. Roche is now features editor and designer for Imago Magazine, a Tampa Bay area monthly. His wife is a teacher at Clearwater High School. The couple have three children and live in Clearwater.

ASSETS: Home.

LIABILITIES: Mortgage.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Salary.

WEB SITE: www.votenorm.com

[Last modified September 4, 2006, 06:36:17]


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