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Bay Buzz

The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Early voting going strong in Hillsborough County

With a week to go before the actual election, nearly a quarter of all registered voters in Hillsborough County have already cast ballots.

As of 5:30 p.m., 178,677 people had cast ballots, 106,503 by mail. Most of the rest were cast at early voting sites. Shortly before 4 p.m., the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections sent out a tweet saying turnout was at 22.6 percent.

Compare that to the primary, when only 15.8 percent of voters cast ballots in Hillsborough County by the end of voting, which didn't include independents.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster meets with students at City Hall

A conversation between Mayor Bill Foster and a third grader could lend insight into whether the Tampa Bay Rays will be allowed to explore stadium sites outside the city.

During a meeting and tour at City Hall, 33 students from James B. Sanderlin IB World School quizzed Foster on how he runs the city and makes important decisions. 

“Is the Rays stadium going to stay in St. Petersburg?” a student asked.

Without hesitation, Foster replied: “Absolutely, yes. The Rays stadium is going to stay here.”

“Why do they call it Tampa Bay Rays?” another asked. 

Foster chuckled, adding: “They did it before I got on City Council. All of our sports teams are called Tampa...”

“That doesn’t sound right,” the girl quipped.

Foster agreed.

Baseball fans throughout the region are waiting for Foster to either green light or spike the Rays request to look at stadium sites across the bay. 

Last month, a St. Petersburg developer unveiled designs for a new stadium in the Carillon business park. The Rays said they would only explore the plan but only if they could check other sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. …

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Hillsborough candidates made final stretch dash for cash

Some of the candidates seeking office in Hillsborough County are stepping up their games when it comes to bringing in money in the final stretch of their campaigns.

District 6 Hillsborough Clounty Commission incumbent Democrat Kevin Beckner continues to set the standard in local races, hauling in another $21,659 in the past two weeks ending Oct. 12 to bring his total to $297,428. He began to part with a major chunk of it, spending nearly $70,000, primarily on at least two mail drops. What's daunting for his challenger is that Beckner still has nearly half the money he has raised on hand.

That opponent, Republican Margaret Iuculano, took in just $1,550, raising her total to $72,251. After weathering a primary contest, she has just less than $10,000 left, hardly enough for even a targeted mailer in what is a county-wide contest.

Meanwhile, Republican Incumbent Commissioner Al Higginbotham brought in another $17,985, to take his total to $180,281. He has a little less than half of that left, while Democratic opponent Mark Nash has about $7,000. Nash reported raising $1,770 in the past two weeks to bring his total to $45,988. …

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St. Petersburg wants to charge residents a $2 fee to pay bills online

St. Petersburg is chasing nickels and dimes to meet projected revenues for 2013.

The latest fee headed for residents could be for the convenience of paying city bills online or on the telephone. The charge for each transaction: $2.00. 

St. Petersburg hopes to raise $325,000. Residents wouldn’t be assessed the fee if they pay the bill in person. 

The Billings & Collections Department proposed the fee increases. 

The department hopes to raise another $230,000 by increasing fees for special assessments on utility account from $35 to $55; security alarm permits from $10 to $25; and creating a special assessment lien filing and releasing fee of $35.

The City Council will read the proposed ordinance tonight and vote on Nov. 1 after a public hearing. 

The proposed fees come weeks after citizens blasted Mayor Bill Foster and his administrator for promoting a fire readiness fee to raise about $10 million in order to cover a budget gap. The City Council instead increased property taxes.  Residents preferred paying higher taxes instead of being barraged with service fees. 

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Hillsborough County hires former Tampa attorney as its top lawyer

 Hillsborough County government has a new top attorney.

Commissioners agreed to contract terms Wednesday with former city of Tampa attorney Chip Fletcher, who will at last replace former County Attorney Renee Lee.

Fletcher, 43, got a two-year contract that will pay him $205,000 annually. He starts Nov. 12.

“I just want to thank the commission for the trust you are placing in me,” Fletcher told the board. “I look forward to doing my best to live up to that in every respect you all request and rightfully demand.”

Hillsborough has been without a full-time county attorney for more than a year since commissioners forced out Lee in June of 2011. One of her former top assistants, Don Odom, has filled in since then and will retire after 28 years next month.

Lee had faced a wide array of accusations questioning her judgment, including blessing an unauthorized pay raise for herself and former County Administrator Pat Bean in 2007. Commissioners grappled for months with how to address the conduct of both, in part due to lucrative severance provisions in their contracts that made firing them politically unpalatable. …

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Vinik mum on plans for Channel District

He's in talks to take over Channelside Bay Plaza. Companies with which he has ties are buying land near it and the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where his Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team plays home games.

He has big bucks and a demonstrated willingness to part with some of them. Oh, and by the way, community discussion about a future home for the Tampa Bay Rays just happens to be heating up at the same time, and some people think the Channel District would be a swell location for a new pro baseball stadium.

Despite all that, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik would say very little about his designs for the Channel District, or his interest in pro baseball, as he faced the news media scrum Tuesday.

"We’re basically brainstorming right now," Vinik said. "We’re trying to think of all kinds of possibilities. The most important thing is how much we want a vibrant area down there. What exactly ends up happening with Channelside and the parking lots on either side of the arena, etcetera, I don’t know on this day. Hopefully we can have some good growth down there for all this region." …

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Conservative group targets Democratic challengers for Pinellas Commission


Mailers attacking the two Democratic challengers for the Pinellas County Commission are landing in mail boxes, paid for by a conservative group called the Main Street Leadership Council.

The mailers target Janet Long and Charlie Justice as “Too Costly. Too Out of Touch.” Justice, a former State Sentator who is running against Republican incumbent Nancy Bostock, is characterized as being in the pocket of big insurance companies. (The same line of attack was used against him in 2006, when he ran for State Senate.) Long, a former State Rep., is opposing Republican incumbent Neil Brickfield.
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TBTimes Editorial Board weighs in on Pinellas County Commission, School Board and school levy

Sunday's Tampa Bay Times includes the editorial board's recommendations for Pinellas County Commission: Janet Long for District 1, Charlie Justice for District 3 and Ken Welch for District 7.

Also published this week were recommendations for Pinellas County School Board -- Elliott Stern in District 1; Rene Flowers in District 7 -- and a yes vote on extending the county's optional property tax for schools.

A list of all the recommendations the Times editorial board has made in Tampa Bay for the general election, thus far, can be found here.

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Dunedin Fine Art Center not backing candidate, director says

DUNEDIN — The Dunedin Fine Art Center's executive director rebutted accusations Thursday that the organization is backing a political candidate.

City Commissioner David Carson told the Tampa Bay Times this week that he believes he's facing an opponent in the Nov. 6 election as a result of a former art center president threatening to find a challenger if Carson failed to support the art center's requests for city funding.

The center recently asked the city to chip in $500,000 toward a state matching grant that would pay for a building expansion. Carson and his supporters estimate as many as 25 to 50 percent of challenger Heather Gracy's $19,305 worth of campaign contributions come from art center members, board members and staff, including George Ann Bissett, the center's director.

In denying the accusations, Bissett said she donated to Gracy's campaign as a longtime friend who attends the same church and was impressed by Gracy's repeated chairmanship of Our Lady of Lourdes' Saints & Sinners Ball.

Bissett, of Palm Harbor, wants to see proof that the art center is behind such a large portion of Gracy's donations. And even if they are, she says, what's the big deal? …

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Gloria Steinem to attend rally in St. Petersburg

Activist and writer Gloria Steinem is coming to St. Petersburg next weekend for a get-out-the-vote rally at the Jannus Live venue downtown.

Part of the “I Am Choice” campaign, the event on Oct. 20 is intended to encourage people to vote all the way down the lengthy two-page ballot and reject all 11 state constitutional amendments, while approving the retention of the three Supreme Court Justices and the county’s Teacher’s Referendum. The campaign is especially focusing on urging people to vote no on Amendment 6, which would ban public funds from going to abortion services or health coverage that includes abortions.

According to the press release, Steinem will be joined by Democratic local elected officials as well as candidates, such as Jessica Ehrlich, who is running for Congress against Rep. Bill Young, Dwight Dudley, who is running for Florida House District 68 and Mary Lou Ambrose, who is running for State House District 66.

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Dunedin City Commission race rife with rumors of art center backing, vandalism, mudslinging

DUNEDIN -- The race for a Dunedin City Commission seat is heating up as rumors swirl about the candidates' plans for the Dunedin Fine Art Center.

Commissioner David Carson believes the only reason he's facing an opponent in the Nov. 6 election is because of an upcoming vote involving the art center. The center has asked the city to chip in $500,000 toward a state matching grant that would pay for a building expansion.

Carson, who has come out against the funding, points out that a substantial number of the campaign contributions for political newcomer Heather Gracy come from art center staff, board members or affiliates.

"I was told by a former (art center) president that if I don't support them, they'd find somebody to run against me," the one-term incumbent said. "This is a $500,000 election for them so it's all about money. ... In my opinion, that's what this race is about."

But Gracy says Carson's art center accusation "has no merit." …

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Paramedic, emergency medical technician union endorses Janet Long for Pinellas County Commission

Janet Long has won the support of Local 247 of the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics in her bid  for a seat on the Pinellas County Commission.

Here is the announcement:

"The County Commission needs a fresh new voice. Janet Long has the political and personal experience needed to bring OUR County Commission to resolution on the important issues of this cycle. The situation with Pinellas County EMS has become an EMERGENCY. Janet Long will get the job done FOR the citizens.

"We, as your EMTs & Paramedics are people of action, and we/you need A PINELLAS COUNTY COMMISSIONER of ACTION, willing to speak her mind and make the difficult decisions FOR the citizens she represents.

"We are happy to join the growing list of organizations supporting Janet Long to be our next county commissioner.

"We have met with Janet and can attest that she is part of our emergency services/first responder family, both figuratively and literally. Like all families do, we will disagree from time to time, but when the Tones ring for a citizen’s emergency we put on our gloves and get the job done." …

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New poll shows close races for Pinellas Commission seats

A poll released on Thursday shows that races for two of the seats on the Pinellas County Commission are very close, but many voters are still undecided.

Conducted on Oct. 3 by StPetePolls, the poll includes survey responses from 396 likely voters across Pinellas County. The results for countywide positions such as Sheriff and Supervisor of Elections have a margin of error of 4.9 percent. For District 7 — whose commissioner is elected solely by residents in that district — the group surveyed 440 voters and had a margin of error of 4.7 percent.

We don't vouch for the accuracy of StPetePolls, but here are their latest results:

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A fundraiser that's part politics, part charity

Two Pinellas charities are hosting a political straw poll and fundraiser next Monday in St. Petersburg.

Called “Pennies for Politics,” the event encourages residents to contribute to the Partners for Life Foundation and the Heroes of the St. Pete Police by dropping money into jars labeled for the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.  The jar (and candidate) with the most pennies (or dollars, quarters, etc.) wins.


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Pinellas Republicans gather to watch presidential debate

CLEARWATER -- It seems improbable, but the bar in which the Pinellas County Republican Party watched Thursday night’s debate was not selected for its name. Happenstance brought about 50 people to the Fat Cat Tavern on U.S. 19 to cheer on Mitt Romney, who was working hard to dispel the notion that he favors fat cats.

Like parents both pleased and a little stunned by their child's success, they cheered hard for Romney. They held “Florida Believes” signs aloft over plates of wings and bottles of Miller Lite. And they heckled President Barack Obama every time he appeared on the eight flat screen TVs.

“He's a frickin idiot!” yelled one viewer over a snoozy back-and-forth about healthcare. "Blah blah blah!”

Brent Narog of Pinellas Park compared Obama to the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, characters who lead the other animals after a
revolution and come to be hated and feared. On his t-shirt were the initials O.M.G. — Obama Must Go. Narog has been out of work for two
years, he said, and pays the bills by selling his belongings at auctions and yard sales. …

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