Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Politics

Pinellas commissioner John Morroni faces challenge from former supporter Tom Rask

CLEARWATER — Eight years ago, Pinellas County Commission incumbent John Morroni received a $200 campaign donation from a Seminole businessman named Tom Rask.

Morroni had been in office for six years and Rask wanted to see him win another four-year term. Today, Rask calls Morroni a flip-flopping politician who is out of touch with county voters and has overstayed his welcome.

"I woke up," Rask said when asked about the change of heart. "He equivocates on pretty much every issue."

Rask, 50, is Morroni's lone challenger in the District 6 Republican primary, but all registered voters get to cast a ballot Tuesday because no other candidate filed to run. The primary winner takes the seat. The district generally covers Pinellas Park, Seminole, northeast St. Petersburg and south beaches.

Morroni, 59, of Treasure Island, says he has helped the county weather the Great Recession and works hard for constituents who contact him with issues. He wants another four years to focus on tourism, improve the county's pockets of poverty and restore areas that suffered from budget cuts, such as code enforcement and veterans services.

"We've had some tough times with the economy, and we've definitely created a more efficient government," he said. "Now we're finally starting to get back to where we need to be in order to be responsible to our taxpaying citizens."

Morroni has a real estate license but says the commission is his full-time job. He served in the state House for eight years and was elected in 2000 to one of two new seats on the commission. He had to run again two years later to create staggered terms.

Morroni and three other commissioners were targeted by a lawsuit filed in 2012 by three Pinellas residents who said they violated the two four-year term limits approved by county voters in 1996. An appeals court this year affirmed that board members are not bound by that vote because the county charter provisions do not contain term limits.

Still, Rask says Morroni has at least violated the will of the voters by running again.

"Seventy-three percent (of voters) said they want term limits for county commissioners, and as a county commissioner, you should respect that," he said.

Morroni pointed to the court decision and noted that he ran unopposed in 2010.

"We don't have term limits in Pinellas County," he said. "I'm imposing my own term limit and after this (election), I'm done."

Rask owns Logical Sites, a Web publishing company, but he spends time as a government watchdog. He frequently attends County Commission meetings to chide board members for their decisions. Last year, he sued the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority over its contract with a Tampa public relations firm to manage the Greenlight Pinellas transit campaign. He has created websites under domain names that include the names of politicians (including Morroni), then lambastes them there.

Morroni calls Rask a potential liability.

"A combative style in a group of seven leaders will not work," he said. "You don't have to agree with the other six all the time, but there's a way of working with the six."

Rask insists he would be effective, bringing a fresh eye to help find ways to make government more efficient.

"When I get on the commission, I don't intend to do a lot of arguing or talking," he said. "I'm just going to put the facts out there and then we can go ahead and vote."

Rask points to Morroni's stance on fluoride — he voted to take the chemical out of the county's water supply in 2011, then sided with the majority to reverse the decision the following year — as a flip-flop. Morroni said he is glad he got the chance to correct a mistake. Rask says that if the issue comes up again, he will "consider the will of the people and carefully consider where the science stands at that time."

Perhaps no issue divides the candidates more than Greenlight Pinellas. The plan on the Nov. 4 ballot would increase the sales tax from 7 to 8 cents in order to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Rask says voters tell him that light rail is not a viable option for Pinellas. He says PSTA is run poorly and should improve bus service using its current budget.

"When you go along to get along, you don't properly vet public policy proposals, and Greenlight Pinellas is a prefect example of that," he said.

Morroni said he didn't have an opinion either way when he voted to put the referendum on the ballot last year. Appointed to the PSTA board since then, he says he has learned enough to support the plan.

"Greenlight Pinellas is going to bring in more positive development to areas that aren't being serviced," he said. "I know people who oppose Greenlight but are still going to vote for me because they know what a dedicated public servant I am."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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