BROOKSVILLE — Citizens, candidates and supporters crowded into the County Commission chambers Thursday evening to hear for themselves from the crowded field of hopefuls seeking votes in the Aug. 26 primary election.
Sponsored by the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and shown live through government broadcasting, the political forum brought out more than a dozen candidates running for local, state and federal offices.
All nine of the Republican candidates seeking County Commission seats participated in the event, including the only incumbent on the primary ballot, Jeff Stabins in District 1.
Opponent Jon "Jaz'' Zydenbos blasted the commission for allowing the budget to double on its watch when property assessments soared. And he criticized the economic incentive Stabins recently had approved by a unanimous commission vote to fix up the homes of low-income homeowners.
He said those improvements will eventually force those residents out of their homes because of higher property taxes.
But Stabins defended the program saying it was a way to get construction workers back to work by repairing homes. He also argued that, during his tenure, the commission has scaled back the property tax rate by 25 percent. He touted his work in growth management and his new initiative to scale back heavy-handed code enforcement.
Michael Burmann, the third candidate in District 1, spoke about his own plan to make homes more stormworthy using state housing assistance dollars and about doing more to unite Hernando County.
In the District 3 commission race, the three candidates hoping to run against incumbent Democrat Diane Rowden talked about a leaner government.
John Druzbick touted his service on the School Board and his business experience, arguing that he would push for true zero-based budgeting, co-purchasing with other government entities, and departmental audits to show where belt-tightening is needed.
Hubert "Wayne'' Dukes has talked about cutting 15 percent of expenses across the board. He said he would leave it up to departments to figure out where those cuts can be made. He specifically cited possible staff cuts in code enforcement.
The third candidate in the District 3 race, Charles Gaskin, questioned where the county has been spending its road improvement money and how the county uses and turns over the fleet. Gaskin said the county gets rid of vehicles too quickly.
In the District 5 commission race, Republicans James Adkins, William "Billy'' Healis and Michael Robinson are all lining up to challenge incumbent Chris Kingsley in the November general election.
Adkins described himself as a conservative who wants to see fair taxation. He talked about wanting to see the county drop some of its regulations, specifically permit requirements when homeowners are trying to fix up their properties.
"This county needs leadership and I am that leader,'' Healis said. He talked about wanting to improve the quality of life for his family and for all Hernando residents.
For Robinson, the impetus for running was to push for the creation of a charter government in Hernando. He would like to see a charter written that would oust commissioners who micromanage and would seat a "strong mayor" to run the county operations.
In the nonpartisan race for the District 4 seat on the School Board, candidate Gene Magrini said he believes the school district can afford teacher raises topping 4 percent by asking vendors to bring down their prices. He believes $3-million can be found in the budget for raises.
Opponent Robert Neuhausen blasted superintendent Wayne Alexander. Saying Alexander has "failed the community,'' he blamed him for "a dramatic decrease in morale.'' He said teachers are intimidated by him and that he must respect teachers to turn the situation around.
Candidate James Yant said the district needs more parental involvement to improve academics and reduce discipline problems. He advocates parenting programs for young families.
The three candidates in the Democratic congressional primary rattled off a long list of national problems but offered few solutions as the group sought to label Republican incumbent Ginny Brown-Waite as out-of-touch with voters.
John Russell of Dade City offered the most specific details when describing his support for a health care coverage plan similar to Medicare in which participants pay based on income level. Carol Castagnero spoke about pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, while David Werder struggled at times to explain his positions.
Only one of the two Democrats running in state Senate District 11 appeared at the forum. Richard Skandera, 21, described why he decided to make a bid for office at such a young age. "We're in a lot of trouble right now," he said. "We need an idealist in Tallahassee."
His words brought some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
Skandera's opponent in the race, Fred Taylor, did not attend the forum.
The judicial candidates summarized their backgrounds and qualifications. In the Circuit Court Group 3 race, former Assistant State Attorney Michael Lamberti of Spring Hill struck a chord by emphasizing that he is the only candidate who lives in Hernando County. (The seat will be based in Inverness, Citrus County.) Denise Lyn, an Inverness attorney, and prosecutor Sandy Hawkins of Belleview focused on their credentials.
Group 11 Circuit Judge Richard "Ric" Howard, who lives in the Royal Highlands area, is competing to keep his seat on the bench in Citrus County and found a sympathetic crowd when his opponent, Inverness attorney Rhonda Portwood, did not appear at the forum.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.