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Candidates face foes, public at forum

Contenders in key races gave speeches and answered questions at the event sponsored by the Times and the League of Women Voters.

By JIM ROSS, BARBARA BEHRENDT and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


BEVERLY HILLS -- It was the final organized forum at which all the local candidates would speak. As a result, it was the last, best chance for political hopefuls to state their cases -- and take their shots.

The candidates didn't let the opportunity slip away. With more than 200 people watching Monday night at the Beverly Hills Recreation Association clubhouse, the incumbents and those who would replace them combined to stage a spirited political gathering.

The League of Women Voters and the St. Petersburg Times sponsored the gathering. Candidates gave short speeches, answered questions from the organizers and later fielded written, screened questions from the audience.

Here's a recap:

School superintendent: Ansel Briggs, a longtime advocate for people who have tangled with bureaucracies, said he could advocate for the children of the Citrus public schools.

"Every once in a while, you feel it's your civic duty to place your head on the block," said Briggs, who has no party affiliation and has pledged to change the system that allows school superintendents to be elected instead of appointed.

Briggs said the schools should offer more training in the trades, open their gymnasiums for recreation and build an Olympic-size swimming pool. They should do more to train youngsters to read, and the superintendent himself should do more to get everyone with a stake in education to be involved in decision-making.

"My form of leadership is to bring everyone to the table," Briggs said. "We need a superintendent who cares."

When asked about the strategic plan that incumbent Pete Kelly commissioned, Briggs reminded the audience that Citrus 20/20 generated an educational program for free.

"Do we need another four years or eight years to put a plan together?" Briggs asked. "I could do it in six months."

Kelly, a Republican, strongly defended his record. He reminded the audience that, under his leadership, the Renaissance Center for disruptive students opened, and the zero-tolerance policy, which set strong penalties for students who bring weapons and drugs on campus, was adopted.

Kelly said the district attendance policy, adopted during his tenure, led to sharply reduced absenteeism at all school levels. Also, he oversaw an $8-million technology upgrade, has worked to create a more meaningful school curriculum and has helped Citrus establish the 10th lowest student-to-teacher ratio in Florida.

"We have moved forward to take care of the needs of our school system," Kelly said, noting that the Renaissance Center and the attendance policy had been discussed before he took office.

The Democrat in the race, David Hickey, told the crowd that he has served as a coach, a principal and assistant superintendent under Kelly. He criticized Kelly's leadership, noting the significant turnover in top administrative positions was "one symptom" of people'sdisillusionment with the incumbent.

Hickey also repeated familiar criticism of Kelly's budgetary decisions. He said Kelly hired 75 people one year when only 30 new students arrived in the district. The following year, when there were more than 400 additional students, Kelly cut 68 positions in the budget.

Hickey said staff morale was low and cost of the strategic planning consultants was too high. The school system needs to attract and retain good teachers and improve trust levels between employees and the administration.

"I'm not a great politician. . . . I speak from the heart," Hickey said.

County Commission District 5: The speeches by candidates Millie King and Josh Wooten took a more muted tone, as neither addressed the controversial campaign materials that ignited a heated debate last week.

King, a Republican, sent out a fundraising letter suggesting that Wooten, a Democrat, would conduct county business outside the "Sunshine" at his business office. She also circulated a flier stating, "Maybe (Wooten) welcomes young felons and even sex offenders," because of his stance on the Brown Schools.

King gave a general response to an audience member who asked about the campaign materials Monday night, inviting the individual to read her flier and then talk to King about her concerns.

King said that unlike her opponent, she has no ties to any particular business groups. She said the County Commission now is split 3 to 2 in favor of county funding for the Economic Development Council.

"A vote for Millie King will shift that balance of power to 3 to 2 in favor of the residents, not the businesses," she said.

Wooten, who had accepted $210 in campaign contributions in August from four Economic Development Council board members, said he is disappointed with the group's progress and wants to revisit all economic development options.

Wooten returned to his core campaign themes of roadside beautification and fast-tracking the widening of busy roads, such as County Road 486. He also vowed to make sure the county grows responsibly.

"You deserve a commissioner who will see to it that we're not gobbled up by New Port Richey-type sprawl," he said.

County Commission District 3: Democrat Zoe McLendon said she would represent those that two-term Republican Vicki Phillips has not: people who opposed the failed one-cent sales tax and the proposed Suncoast Parkway extension through Citrus County.

"She wasn't representing the citizens because the citizens are fighting (the parkway)," McLendon said.

Phillips noted that the first leg of the parkway, which is built up to the county's southern border, will open next July. She said the county should focus its efforts on limiting commercial development along the parkway corridor, protecting the environment and widening nearby county roads.

"I am committed to seeing that it comes with the least amount of impact to Citrus County," Phillips said.

County Commission District 1: Bruce Van Vlack, a Democrat, faulted this commission for giving residents a failed sales tax proposal and an unpopular garbage tax. He also criticized the board for asking for a second study on the decade-old impact fees instead of adopting the new rates recommended by a consultant.

"Let's get some action, and let's get it now," Van Vlack said.

Roger Batchelor, a Republican who is seeking his second term, said he has followed through on his campaign promise four years ago to make water quality projects the county's top priority. To date, the county has secured some $17.5-million in water and sewer grants, he said.

An audience member asked Batchelor how he felt about Pro-Line Boats applying for a $250,000 county grant for 125 new jobs it plans to create at a future factory, when the boat maker just laid off 50 employees last week.

"I guarantee you, they're going to have to sell me on the idea," Batchelor said.

Tax collector: Democrat Lee Cooper stepped up his criticism of Republican opponent Janice Warren.

Cooper said Warren's management experience, though worthy, wasn't any better than his work history.

And her vaunted community service, which he dismissed as glorified networking opportunities and business lunches, hardly compared with his Army duty during Vietnam -- service that put him in harm's way and inspired criticism from some friends and family.

Cooper went on to emphasize another sticking point: He, unlike Warren, has two college degrees.

"I'm the qualified candidate," he said.

Warren didn't take the criticism quietly.

She told the audience that she helped bring Junior Achievement to Citrus County and later helped other communities start the program. Warren participated in the county visioning process. She has served on many county boards, lending her business experience to their efforts.

And education? She studied two years at Brevard Community College, three years at banking college and has taken countless continuing education courses designed specifically for bank managers.

Plenty of qualified people didn't earn college degrees. "I'm proud to be counted among them," she told the audience.

Warren has trained and mentored bank officers who went on to take top-level executive positions -- positions she could have pursued but chose not to, opting to remain in Citrus County instead. Now she wants to remain here and serve in a different capacity: government office.

"I worked my way up from the grass roots," Warren said.

Property appraiser: Democrat John Barnes repeated his criticism of Property Appraiser Ron Schultz, a Republican who has made a number of controversial moves during his decade in office.

"Your vote for John Barnes can make all of the controversy, excess legal fees and waste of staff time go away," he said.

Barnes said Schultz was wrong in 1995 when he decreased the value of properties along the proposed Suncoast Parkway path. Barnes described the toll road leg through Citrus as a "dream."

"I do not see any reason to reduce property in 1995 for something that may or may not come to be," Barnes said.

Schultz touted his credentials, noting that he is a certified property appraiser in both the public and private sector. Barnes is neither.

Schultz said he personally handles the appraisal of Florida Power Corp., the county's largest taxpayer. As Carolina Power & Light Co. takes over the power plant, Schultz said any layoffs would increase the company's taxable value because it would spend less money on employees.

"If we're going to lose jobs, the least we can do is get more taxes out of them," Schultz said with a grin.

State Senate: Democratic challenger Leslie Scales continued attacking incumbent Anna Cowin, a Republican, on the education issue.

Cowin helped sponsor Gov. Jeb Bush's A+

plan, which calls for intensive student testing and vouchers for students who attend chronically failing schools.

Scales said vouchers are the wrong way to go. She supports accountability and high standards, but said vouchers don't meet constitutional tests.

She also said that parents must not be left out of the education solutions.

"We've found no way to hold parents accountable," Scales said.

Scales repeated her plan to establish an Inverness office and pay attention to Citrus constituents, something she said Cowin has failed to do. Scales also said that, when the Senate takes up redistricting, she will push to have Citrus included in one state Senate district; it currently is part of two districts.

Cowin said she would continue pushing for affordable prescription drug coverage for seniors and continue education reform. She also pledged to continue seeking a ban on partial-birth abortions in Florida.

Congress: The incumbent, U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, had an excused absence: She was in Washington, D.C.,because the House of Representatives remained in session. One of her aides, Patrick Thomas, read a letter to the audience reviewing Thurman's accomplishments, such as fighting for veterans' benefits and reducing the federal debt.

Republican challenger Peter Enwall didn't let his opponent's absence go unmentioned: He said Thurman should consider calling and having her voice broadcast into the microphone at forums.

Enwall said Thurman, D-Dunnellon, has failed to address what he sees as a moral failure that is "causing America to lose her way." He repeated his belief that education decisions should be made at the local, not federal, level and said Thurman and Democrats should give the Republican-led Congress the credit is deserves for the good economy.

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