Candidate petitions serve dual roles in Pasco commission races

As Pasco candidates try to collect enough voter signatures to get their names on the ballot, some petition efforts are turning heads for their unconventional methods.

Consider two petition efforts by County Commission candidates. Ron Oakley, a Zephyrhills citrus grower running for the District 1 seat, recently sent 30,000 two-page mailers with petition forms to homes across Pasco, a tactic that likely costs more than the standard candidate qualifying fee.

And Commissioner Jack Mariano, running for a third term in west Pasco's District 5, is using his petitions to gauge public opinion about his pet issue, eliminating the new park fees.

To qualify by petition, candidates must collect at least 2,980 signatures and pay a small fee to the supervisor of elections to check the names.

Oakley, a first-time candidate who served four years on the board of the agency known as Swiftmud, said his mailers have worked.

"I've had a lot of good comments about it," he said. "People are filling it out and sending it in."

But sending out that much direct mail isn't cheap. Sen. Jack Latvala, an adviser to Oakley opponent Commissioner Ted Schrader, said based on the size and quantity, the mailers likely cost between $14,000 and $15,000. Former Commissioner Michael Cox estimated the cost was at least $9,000.

Compare that to the $4,837 fee commission candidates can pay to bypass the petition process and qualify for the ballot.

"Some people get them one at a time," Latvala said of the petitions. "If they have enough money, they can send out a mailer."

Part of Oakley's mail piece touts the advantages of qualifying via petition. It demonstrates grass roots support, and it "will save valuable funds — always a conservative's concern!"

Oakley said the cost is worth it because the mailer also includes a biography that introduces him to voters, especially those in west Pasco who might not know him very well.

"You kind of put a story out, and you have the petition form," he said. "You do two things at one time."

He also said his strategy isn't unique. Earlier this year, Schrader mailed petition cards to registered voters.

Schrader said his advertising was on a "much smaller scale." He sent a double postcard, and his petition cards didn't include return postage. Roughly 20 percent of voters mailed cards back, he said. Total cost: about $1,500.

"It was the most cost-effective way to be able to reach out," he said.

Mariano's petition drive is also a bit unconventional. He's made his opposition to the new $2 parking fee at 11 county parks a centerpiece of his campaign, and his petition forms ask voters if they agree. The top half of the page is the standard petition, while the second half includes two questions on the fees.

Mariano tried unsuccessfully to attach the questions to a survey the county will send to residents in the spring. So, he said, "I put my own survey together."

The first half asks people whether they want to abolish the parking fee and the new $10 youth sports fee. It also asks if people want to keep the remaining two county swimming pools.

Then, Mariano asks how to pay for getting rid of the fees: reserves or a slight property tax increase — $2.12 more in taxes on a $100,000 home with standard exemptions.

Mariano hasn't dug through the responses yet but said most people he finds are against the fee. He has been pushing for the increase to the tax rate.

"I'd prefer that to pounding our reserves when you're in a down economy," he said. "I wouldn't do that in my household."

Mariano has been the lone vote against the fees several times over the past year. Schrader supports the fee, saying other counties have similar policies and that most folks prefer user fees to higher taxes.

"He's extremely passionate about it, you have to give him that," Schrader said. "It sure would be nice to move on, to be honest."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Candidate petitions serve dual roles in Pasco commission races 12/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 16, 2011 8:41pm]

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