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Line forms to succeed Phyllis Busansky as Hillsborough elections chief

TAMPA — After Pam Iorio, a Democratic supervisor of elections, left office six years ago to run for Tampa mayor, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a successor, former GOP legislator Buddy Johnson.

Now, with the sudden death of Phyllis Busansky, who ousted Johnson in the November elections, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist will appoint a new elections chief to replace a Democrat.

Whether Crist will tap one of Busansky's fellow Democrats, appoint one of his own party faithful or seek out the ablest administrator available remains to be seen. But applicants for the supervisor's job already are lining up, and it may take Crist weeks to settle on Busansky's replacement.

Florida law requires that the governor appoint a successor who will serve until the next general election, November 2010. The $132,000-a-year elections job would then be on the ballot for a two-year term.

"As we've done in the past in filling vacancies, we will accept applications, conduct interviews and background checks, and it will probably take several weeks until we get through the process,'' Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said. "Right now, the governor's thoughts and concerns are with Mrs. Busansky's family, her co-workers and the officials with her when the death occurred."

Busansky, 72, died after retiring to her bedroom Monday night at a conference for Florida elections officials in St. Augustine.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank said Tuesday that the governor should follow "the will of the people'' who elected Busansky and install another Democrat as elections chief. Frank said Busansky's chief of staff, Craig Latimer, should be considered because "he was in sync with what Phyllis was doing" to repair problems in the office.

Latimer, with 35 years in law enforcement, retired as a major in the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office to manage Busansky's election campaign and then became her top lieutenant. He declined to comment Tuesday.

Latimer is not a name politician, Frank said, and "the public may not know him, but he would be a fine choice."

In 2003, 17 local candidates put their names on the list to replace Iorio as elections supervisor. Johnson, co-founder of BuddyFreddys restaurants, a three-term state representative from Plant City and a Jeb Bush appointee to head the Florida Division of Real Estate, got the nod after a recommendation from Johnny Byrd, then the powerful GOP speaker of the Florida House.

Johnson's legacy was botched elections, lost ballots, misappropriated money and ongoing investigations by the FBI and the inspector general.

Johnson was noncommittal Tuesday, but some of the other candidates from last time are ready to try again.

Janet Dougherty, whose name was Janet Kovach the last time her hat was in the ring, said she will "absolutely" seek the appointment. A Republican and an environmental and regulatory consultant, Dougherty was a poll worker during Johnson's tenure and did voter education for Iorio.

"Phyllis was an amazing woman and has brought that office back so much. I'd like to continue that,'' she said.

Political consultant Mark Proctor, another also-ran in 2003, said he "would certainly consider" seeking the appointment again. Proctor, a Republican, said he believes party preference should not be an issue since the electorate was not so much voting out a Republican last year as it was throwing out an incumbent with a subpar record.

"I think the office should be nonpartisan anyway, and that's how I'd run it,'' he said.

Joe Chillura, a Republican who sometimes allied himself with Busansky on the Hills­borough County Commission, sought the elections appointment in 2003 and isn't ruling out another try.

"Out of respect for Phyllis, I don't want to jump on that bandwagon right now," Chillura said. "But I think first of all, the governor should look within the office to see if there is someone who's qualified, someone that's nonpartisan, someone who can fit the bill."

On this, Frank and Chillura agreed: Crist must appoint someone who will maintain the trust Busansky built up in the elections office.

"This office was a tremendous problem before Busansky got there and began restructuring to bring back integrity to the place,'' Frank said. "This is a delicate time. Certainly, we do not need a reckless choice by the governor."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Line forms to succeed Phyllis Busansky as Hillsborough elections chief 06/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:29am]
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