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Pinellas County Commission's new Democratic members could bring policy changes

Budget meetings devolved into bickering over protocol. Staff members sometimes felt disrespected. And there were days when it appeared as though board members would rather quit than endure another argument over fluoride.

Over the past four years, it has sometimes seemed as though the Pinellas County Commission was experiencing a rough adolescence.

But the historic defeat of Republican Commissioners Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock on Tuesday could significantly change the board's character.

"It will take the commission back to the moderate body that it was in the past," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, a Republican elected in 2000. "Until those two were elected, we were that way."

Janet Long and Charlie Justice ousted two of the most conservative Republicans on the board and increased the number of Democrats on the commission to three, the highest it has been since the 1960s.

But don't expect a seismic shift to the left.

The three Democrats will still be a minority on the seven-member board. And in their campaigns, Long and Justice both cast themselves as centrists focused on returning the commission to the nonideological body it had been for decades.

They are, however, much more likely to side with current commissioners on matters that have deeply divided the board, potentially ending years of 4-3 votes on issues such as tax rate increases and spending on programs to help the poor.

The group had two distinct blocs. On one side were Commissioners Latvala, Ken Welch, Karen Seel and John Morroni, all of whom have served multiple terms. On the other were the self-styled upstarts: Brickfield, Bostock and Commissioner Norm Roche, who was elected in 2010.

This latter group came into office eager to examine every budget item, certain they would find cuts their predecessors missed. The first group watched the new arrivals warily, and then with obvious irritation, as meetings turned into four- and five-hour debates over contract language.

"We spent a lot of time discussing process and procedure rather than the real issues at hand and how to solve those problems," Latvala said.

The conflict came to a head last year, when Morroni's swing vote allowed a measure to pass that ended the practice of adding fluoride to the county's drinking water.

Brickfield and Bostock believe the fluoride decision likely cost them the election.

Welch, the board's lone Democrat, said it was not only fluoride, but also voters' desire to bring the commission back to moderation that ushered Long and Justice into office.

"We've got an EMS issue in front of us, homeless issues, and we need to deal with those and not be trying to appease extreme ideologies," he said. "I think that's what folks were saying loud and clear with their votes."

In addition to reversing the fluoride vote, which Long and Justice have promised to do on their first day in office, Nov. 20, the commission's new composition could affect other issues, such as whether it approves putting to referendum a 1-cent sales tax to support a light rail system. Neither Brickfield nor Bostock supported light rail in Pinellas, a position that Brickfield took with him to his board seat on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

"There's no question, it's a bit of a new dawn coming for the county Commission," said Todd Pressman, a Republican consultant who said that the Justice and Long victories could encourage other Democrats to challenge Republican commissioners. But Pressman cautioned that this election likely had more to do with fluoride and Democratic turnout because of the presidential race than with a shift in demographics or culture in the county.

Still, Long and Justice were able to win over residents in parts of Pinellas that have not typically voted Democratic. In 2008, the map of Brickfield's race against Democrat Paul Matton looked like a miniature version of Florida as a whole. In the Northwest, a band of blue precincts snaked across the middle of the county, a narrow pathway between two oceans of red, like the I-4 corridor. And in the southeastern portion of the county, St. Petersburg, went blue.

But this year, Long's campaign radically altered that map, making incursions into cities like Clearwater, Largo and Seminole, and parts of west St. Petersburg that were red four years ago.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County Commission's new Democratic members could bring policy changes 11/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 10:53pm]
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