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Candidate gets legit in nick of time

A day before elections, businessman William Merritt secures a workers' compensation policy.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2000


Hernando County Commission hopeful William "Alonzo" Merritt cleared up his business problems Monday and won approval to resume his home building in Hernando Beach.

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[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Alan Krasemann of Brooksville fills out an absentee ballot on Monday while voting at the government center in downtown Brooksville. He and his wife will be out of town today.
Merritt paid a $1,302.90 state fine for not having appropriate workers' compensation insurance and presented documents showing he now has a valid policy, said Jeff Thompson, an investigator for the state Division of Workers' Compensation Compliance.

"Everything is squared away," Thompson said. "This probably would have been taken care of Friday, but the company writing his policy is out of New Jersey" and it needed to verify Merritt's financial situation.

The state released Merritt and his company, Seascape Custom Homes, to resume work on John Batista's Hernando Beach home, Thompson said.

That action allowed Merritt to go to the county Development Department and seek the same. The department issued a stop work order for Merritt's business a week ago because he lacked the appropriate licenses.

The county fined Merritt $421 for illegally advertising and operating an unregistered construction firm. It also has fined Merritt's partner, Dennis Bartina, $2,574 for conspiring with an unlicensed contractor and acting as a firm not under license, Development Director Grant Tolbert said.

With the fines paid and all other matters settled, the county closed its dealings with Merritt and Seascape, Tolbert said.

"We'll release (the Batista project) tomorrow. Everything is done," Tolbert said. "That's it. Thank goodness."

The Merritt team, which had spent more than $43,000 working to get his name known and message out, was relieved with the resolution. It had planned a three-day "problems solved" ad campaign for the weekend but had to cancel when the details weren't done.

"Phew," said Bill Cope, Merritt's campaign manager. "It's about time."

Merritt said he was thankful to have the issue behind him.

"The one thing I've learned is that, if elected, I'm going to make Hernando County user-friendly," he said.

Political observers were split, generally along party lines, on whether Merritt's week of publicized business problems would make a difference at the polls today. The activity distracted Merritt from campaigning, Cope said.

Former County Commissioner Len Tria predicted the issue would not prove Merritt's fatal flaw.

"Obviously, the things would have some effect with people," said Tria, a Republican like Merritt. "But I don't know if this is an issue that is detrimental. People know what you go through with business forms."

Outgoing Commissioner Bobbi Mills, the veteran of three county elections, agreed.

Certainly anything that comes out at the last minute affects an election, said Mills, also a Republican. And clearly the paperwork problem, though common, is not the way to do business, she added.

"I don't care who the person is," Mills said. "If they have made a genuine mistake and they have done everything in their power to correct it, I don't have a problem with that person."

Al Jenkins, local Democratic Party chairman, had a different view.

"The papers are saying it was just a paper error, yet at the same time Mr. Merritt was telling everyone he was a builder for 20 years," Jenkins said. "It leads me to wonder, what did he know and when did he know it?"

Jenkins said the problem probably will hurt Merritt.

"People will wonder, if he makes mistakes with his business, what kind of mistakes will he make with the county?" he said.

Mary Aiken, Merritt's Democratic opponent in District 5, declined to comment on this issue.

The winner of this race will replace Paul Sullivan, whom Merritt defeated in the October runoff election.

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