NEW PORT RICHEY — By taking a position that appears to condone offshore oil drilling, County Commissioner Jack Mariano handed his political opponents a campaign issue, and they're using it to question his environmental and leadership credentials.
When the commission voted Tuesday on a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to prevent oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast, Mariano was the sole holdout. Now two candidates vying to take over Mariano's northwestern Pasco commission have criticized his position from both sides of the political aisle.
"I was genuinely shocked that he would go so far out," said Rich Jenkins, who like Mariano is a Republican. "Why in the word would we risk billions if not trillions of industry in tourism, trade, fishery and the ecosystem? ... I just can't express how disappointed I am that we didn't get a 100 percent unanimous vote on that."
Jenkins said there would always be pressures to exploit oil resources off Florida, but he felt Floridians should "hold the line."
"Put the effort into alternative fuel sources," Jenkins said. "As a candidate for Pasco County Board of Commissioners I will pledge to work towards the preservation of Florida's Gulf Coast and prevent oil drilling in our waters."
Tuesday's commission resolution warns that oil spills would threaten the ecology and economy. Commissioner Michael Cox, who introduced the resolution, said offshore drilling would not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, since the U.S. owns only 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.
Mariano voted against the resolution, saying the decision should be left to congressional leaders. He said oil rigs off the Louisiana coast survived Hurricane Katrina without inflicting environmental damage.
But he said Thursday his critics are misinterpreting what he said.
"I didn't say to go out and drill," he said. "I wanted to not send the resolution. Leave it to the congressional delegation. I'd rather they focus on things like the National Catastrophic Fund. The only thing I wanted was to stop the resolution."
On Tuesday, Mariano said he had learned more about offshore drilling at a recent conference — handing his opponents another barb to throw.
"Apparently this is the result of him attending yet another conference and coming back with these ideas — I wonder who was there promoting oil drilling. Who sponsored the session?" said Ginny Miller, a New Port Richey Democrat.
Mariano was criticized last year for running up a travel tab for conferences that was higher than all his commission colleagues combined.
On Thursday, he told the St. Petersburg Times the conference he had attended was a U.S. Green Building seminar about two months ago, where he had met and discussed the drilling issue with a speaker from Louisiana.
Like Jenkins, Miller said Florida and Pasco depended on tourism and pristine nature and could not afford to risk of oil or gas drilling in its waters.
Miller disparaged Mariano's comment Tuesday that coastal drilling is likely to occur whether or not the United States is the first to do it.
"You don't just say 'oh well, it's hopeless,' " she said. "I don't think this kind of cynicism is a reflection of leadership."
On Thursday, Mariano said what he meant was that China and Cuba already have a deal to drill for oil about 90 miles off Florida's coast, on Cuba's side of the Florida Straits.
A third candidate for Mariano's seat, Democrat Lance Shortt, was less definitive than the other opponents.
"My personal opinion is that I would not be in favor of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico," Shortt said. "I'm kind of a tree hugger, so I'm certainly concerned about the environment. Until the country moves out of its dependence on oil, I would like to see better tax credits for alternative energy. ... But if somebody were to say that you can drill for oil and pay $4 instead of $6 (a gallon), I'm not sure I'd say don't drill."
The fourth candidate, Republican George F. Vera, remained in jail Thursday, where he was taken in December on a charge of simple battery, the sheriff's office said.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)909-4613.