On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a former state representative now running for the Pinellas County Commission criticized fire unions, accusing them of using the tragedy for their own gain.
"The firefighters have really taken advantage of 9/11 and what happened then and capitalized on it and the emotion," Janet Long said Monday during a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
Her comments came while discussing the issues of fire and emergency medical service delivery in Pinellas. Long criticized a plan by two firefighters to allow firefighter/paramedics to take patients to the hospital. She said she was unsure if the two understood all that the Sunstar ambulance service does and whether fire departments could do the same. The plan is being taken seriously by some commissioners because of heavy lobbying from firefighters.
Firefighters, she said, "can spin a message like no one I've ever seen."
The ability to sway officials to their side is caused in part by firefighters' work schedule of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. She said that "they have too much time on their hands."
Long said that, while serving in the state House of Representatives, she objected to firefighters who lobbied legislators while in their uniforms with their fire trucks parked outside.
Later, Long said she was referring to pensions and salaries, among other things.
"They're never satisfied,'' she said.
"I know it sounds mean spirited,'' she said, and added that she sympathized with what firefighters went through, but she stood by her statements.
Winthrop Newton, second district vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters association, said it "hurts my heart" to hear Long's claims about firefighters. The FPF second district covers Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"I'm really shocked that she would make those statements," Newton said. "That's an all-time low."
Newton denied that firefighters have taken advantage of the attack on the World Trade Center where 343 firefighters died. Instead, he said, governments have taken advantage of economic hard times to bash teachers, firefighters and police officers. As for Long's comments, Newton suggested she is upset because Pinellas firefighters have endorsed her opponent, Neil Brickfield.
"She's scorned, and this is probably why she's striking out," Newton said.
In the interview, Long did not spare her opponent or others on the Pinellas County Commission.
Brickfield, she said, lacks leadership and is "crafty" for not taking a stand and trying to please everyone.
"He doesn't really do anything. He doesn't say much," Long said. "He finds ways to agree with both sides. . . . He doesn't come up with solutions."
Brickfield said Long is wrong when she characterizes him as a do-nothing. Instead, Brickfield said, he has worked as part of a team confronted with major difficulties that included a 38 percent reduction in property tax revenue. Despite that, he said, he and other commissioners have managed to craft solutions to many of the most difficult problems facing Pinellas, including restructuring indigent health care to save money but serve twice the people. He also denied that he fails to take stands noting that, every time he casts a vote, he takes a side.
"I think my record speaks for itself," he said.
Brickfield, 49, is a Republican running for his second term on the County Commission. He holds Seat 1, an at-large position that is elected countywide.
Long, 67, is a Democrat who served in the Florida House and on the Seminole City Council. She is running in part because she believes Pinellas residents are "crying out for solid leadership."
One of her main criticisms of the commission is a 4-3 vote to take fluoride out of the drinking water. Brickfield voted with the majority.
"I think fluoride is an issue, and I think the way the vote took place is an issue," Long said. The four who voted to remove fluoride were influenced by a "small group of angry people," she said.
"I think they temporarily might have lost their minds for a moment," Long said. Noting that the commission later voted to give the leftover fluoride to the city of Dunedin, she said, "don't you think it's odd that if it's so bad, they'd give it to the city of Dunedin? (If it's dangerous,) they're going to poison all those poor people."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.