SPRING HILL — For novice candidates, it was a chance to bone up on the issues before a live audience. But for those who are old hands at the game, Wednesday evening's political forum sponsored by the Hernando County Coalition of Public Service Employees served as an early opportunity to stretch some rhetorical muscle before the Aug. 14 primary.
Of the roughly 75 people attending the event at Springstead Theater, most were family members and supporters of candidates for sheriff, School Board and County Commission who showed up to hear the participants state their platforms and field questions posed by a panel of public employee representatives.
Representatives from the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, Hernando County Fire Rescue and the Teamsters union served on the panel, moderated by sheriff's Detective Bill Horvath, representing Fraternal Order of Police Nature Coast Lodge 164.
As anticipated, many of the questions dealt with labor-related issues such as employee salaries and benefits, hiring restraints and the possible privatization of some county departments.
The forum drew eight of 12 County Commission candidates, including Joseph Swilley, Michael Burmann, Arlene Glantz, Nick Nicholson, Jason Sager, Ramon Gutierrez, Jimmy Lodato and incumbent John Druzbick.
But it was the sparring between Druzbick — fresh from approving a plan to raise homeowners' property tax rates next year to balance the county budget — and Sager, Republican candidates in commission District 3, that drew the most attention.
Sager challenged Druzbick on a number of financial issues, including whether the county should continue to subsidize THE Bus, the county's public transit system.
"Getting rid of it would easily save us $1 million," Sager said.
Druzbick shot back that eliminating the transit system would put the county in jeopardy of losing federal Americans with Disabilities Act transportation funding.
"If you take away THE Bus, you will be a million dollars in debt," he said.
Candidates for sheriff also faced some pointed questions, including whether to exclusively send Animal Services employees to calls involving animal complaints.
While candidates Bobby Sullivan, Eddie McConnell and Nicholas Piccinich said they would consider not sending deputies, Sheriff Al Nienhaus said that doing so would cause a disconnect with the community.
"People have always looked to the Sheriff's Office to answer those complaints," Nienhaus said. "Leaving them hanging is inappropriate."
All six nonpartisan School Board candidates — Matthew Foreman and William Kingeter in District 2 and Robert Neuhausen, Helen Villafane, Michael Gordon and Gus Guadagnino in District 4 — were quizzed on whether they were in favor of continuing to appoint the school district superintendent, or whether they would prefer the position be an elected one.
Only Gordon and Neuhausen supported the idea of having the superintendent chosen by voters.
"I think it would eliminate a lot of the worries that we have now," Neuhausen said. "That person would have to address the issues and answer questions in front of the public."
The public will have another opportunity to meet local, state and federal candidates this evening at "Politics in the Park," a political rally sponsored by the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.
The event will be from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, 6436 S Broad St., Brooksville.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]