Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Hillsborough property appraiser's race, conduct and qualifications take center stage

TAMPA — Ronda Storms has made Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner's admission that he sent porn to his former girlfriend and human resources director the focus of her campaign to unseat him.

Indeed, the revelations by the Tampa Bay Times in May have left the longtime incumbent deeply vulnerable to a challenge from a state senator with strong name recognition.

Turner has tried to counter that the episode was a minor blemish after 16 years in office — a "blip" is how he recently described it. And he has gone on the offensive to suggest Storms does not have the skills or the resume to run his complicated office.

He's hoping that message drowns out an embarrassing episode that has left him wounded and responding to reporters' questions only by email.

"My opponent is not qualified in the least to lead this office, has a mediocre history of performance and is just out looking for a job," Turner said in one recent email exchange. "A lack of qualifications by any candidate would only serve to move this office backward in its performance."

Storms acknowledges she doesn't have Turner's experience running the office. No one does. That's the nature of being an incumbent, she said.

The winner of the Aug. 14 Republican primary election faces Democrat Bob Henriquez as well as James DeMio and Rob Townsend, who are running without party affiliation.

Appraiser's experience aside, Storms notes her six years in the Senate, helping — with many others — to craft and pass a $70 billion budget that dwarfs the property appraiser's $11 million annual office expenses. In the Senate, she belonged to a select committee overseeing property tax reforms after the housing crash. She served on the community affairs committee that, among other things, oversees constitutional offices, such as the property appraiser. She also is chairwoman of the Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Before that, she was a Hillsborough County commissioner, one of seven board members who vetted and approved a then-nearly $4 billion budget.

She notes she has hired and fired people in both roles. No, she doesn't know all the intricacies of the Property Appraiser's Office and the laws that govern it. She knows some. But she said she'll retain people who know more and hire other qualified people.

"This isn't rocket science," Storms said. "And if it is, I'll hire rocket scientists."

The more relevant qualification for this office is professionalism, she said. And on that score, she insisted, Turner has failed miserably.

Turner's 'blip'

What he dismisses as a blip continued for years.

Turner has acknowledged to the Times that he once dated his former human resources director, Carolyn Filippone, while she worked for him — a relationship and chain of reporting not allowed under current office policies. The relationship occurred in the 2001 time frame, he has said, and took place after the two had come through divorces.

By both their accounts, the relationship ended sometime in early 2002. But six years later, and after he had remarried, Turner has acknowledged sending hard-core pornographic emails to Filippone.

Filippone included nearly four dozen examples over a 16-month period in a sexual harassment complaint she submitted to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was dismissed in April. Turner fired Filippone in May as the Times was preparing a story about the case.

Turner has said he fired Filippone because her complaint was false. He said he never harassed her or made advances, as she claimed. The emails, he said, were part of a mutual, after-hours exchange in which she was actively and willingly engaged.

Filippone has since filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Turner.

"With respect to the allegations of unlawful conduct made against me by a former employee, allegations which the agency investigating them already has held to be unsupported by the evidence she submitted, I deny them and will defend against them," Turner said by email.

He has noted that he was a certified appraiser before he was ever elected, and was a vice president in the real estate section for NationsBank — pedigrees directly relevant to the office.

Storms has a law degree and an English education degree. She also sat on the county's value adjustment board, which hears appeals from property owners challenging their assessments.

And she said if he insists on touting his record and resume, he must own the porn admissions. They speak to both unprofessional and unethical behavior that call into question his judgment in other areas.

First, it undermines morale in an office of 130 employees who must wonder what they should do to get ahead. And it serves as a tacit endorsement to employees of unprofessional conduct.

Storms' goals

As a legislator and commissioner, Storms was known for fiercely campaigning against strip clubs, displays of public nudity, gay pride recognition, and tax and fee hikes. She has been an advocate for protection of more vulnerable residents, such as the elderly and foster children.

As such, she garners strong feelings for and against her, depending on the audience, to go with her high name recognition.

"I know that this is a ministerial position," Storms said. "When I am elected, I will establish an atmosphere of respect for and amongst the staff."

Storms said Turner's conduct lends credence to complaints she hears from constituents that his office is unwilling to listen to even the most reasonable challenges to property valuations. She said Turner is quick to challenge constituents who fight their bills in court, suggesting he treats the office as his kingdom.

She said she will make the office more customer friendly, and that may include a redesign of the office website, which she said is not easy for lay people to use. She said she will also establish clear standards and measurements of employee performance.

Regardless of ideology or relationships, she said she will follow the law when it sets clear guidelines for determining property owners' valuations. In cases where the law is not crystal clear, she will err on the side most favorable to taxpayers.

"When the letter of the law is clear, the ball falls where the letter of the law is," Storms said. "When it's a line call, and you don't know which way to call, you call in favor of the taxpayer."

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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