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Hillsborough's Commissioner Beckner doesn't always heed advice to go slowly

TAMPA — As an openly gay candidate for the Hillsborough County Commission, Democrat Kevin Beckner took pains to emphasize that he was not running to promote a gay agenda.

But Beckner the commissioner has proved to be a staunch advocate for gay rights during his first year in office, even if he hasn't been particularly successful. He has sought domestic partner health benefits for county employees, tried to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and served as grand marshal of the St. Pete Pride festival.

"That seems to be the only eventful thing he has pushed," said former county Commissioner Joe Chillura, who campaigned for Beckner's incumbent opponent, Republican Brian Blair, in 2008.

While his gay rights efforts stand out, Beckner has been more than a one-dimensional politician during his first year in office. He has played a role, sometimes significant, in many of the board's major discussions and votes, and in a few minor ones, too.

They range from floating the proposal that let County Administrator Pat Bean keep her job this month to pushing plans for a new golf cart path in the Sun City Center retirement community.

While many first-year commissioners keep a low profile while they learn the job, Beckner has weighed in forcefully on topics ranging from economic development to juvenile justice.

"I don't have any issues with stating a position," Beckner said. "I'm not afraid to make a decision. I believe my role is to do what is in the best interest of the community as a whole."

Even if the cause is lost, it's important to speak out, he said.

Gay rights advocates welcome the change in attitude that Beckner brings to a commission that has not been welcoming to their concerns in recent years. In Beckner, they say, they have someone they can talk to who will bring those concerns forward.

Those who worked closely with Beckner to help him win election, however, say he works hard to demonstrate he is not a one-issue candidate. Sally Phillips, president of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender & Allies caucus of the Hillsborough Democratic Party, say he has shown himself to be an advocate for the environment and improved transportation, among other issues.

"Kevin is one where his door is always open," Phillips said. "It's open to us, and it's open to others."

• • •

After Beckner was elected in November 2008, but before he was sworn in, commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican, invited him to a friendly lunch. He says he offered his new colleague a couple of observations.

Hagan says he told him other commissioners would be open to helping him achieve some of his early goals. But he also encouraged Beckner to go slow, warning that the county was a big operation and there was much to learn about how it works.

Beckner would quickly learn that Hagan's first bit of guidance is not always true. And as for going slow?

"I think on some issues he has and on others he hasn't," Hagan said. "Some things that he's very passionate about, he's jumped in full bore."

Just three months into the job, Beckner floated his first major initiative — an effort to extend health benefits to the domestic partners of county employees. It failed 5-2 with only Commissioner Rose Ferlita joining him.

The debate was amicable enough, though Commissioner Jim Norman accused him of attempting to revisit the board's rejection years earlier of including sexual orientation in the county's human rights ordinance. Beckner said he understood that people could disagree on issues, but that would not prevent him from bringing proposals forward.

He would come on much more forcefully as his first year closed out. Starting in November, Beckner attempted to include sexual orientation among protected classes in a new sexual discrimination policy the commission was crafting for its own employees. Commissioners Kevin White joined in support, along with Ferlita, but the proposal died on a 4-3 vote.

This time, Beckner got into a heated exchange with Norman, whose beliefs he questioned. Norman told him to knock it off. Beckner accused the majority of commissioners of approving an antidiscrimination policy that in fact allows discrimination of some employees.

"How ironic is that?" he asked. "How thoughtless and pitiful is that for us to create such a discriminatory policy."

Beckner said both discussions were a function of timing, and not of his doing. The opportunities simply presented themselves.

In the first case, the county was preparing to either pick a new health insurance provider or stick with its current plan. That's when a company or government is supposed to discuss possible changes in coverage, otherwise the window would have been closed for up to four more years, he said.

In the second, the commission was being forced to confront its lax discrimination policies. A federal judge had held the county partly liable when a jury found that White sexually harassed a former aide. So the commission was engaging in a full rewrite of its discrimination policies.

"To me, not to have addressed these issues would have been wrong," Beckner said. "We're not elected to make easy decisions and to talk only about comfortable issues."

• • •

While those two votes serve as bookends to Beckner's first year in office, they are not the sum of his efforts.

He has held a series of get-to-know-you sessions with residents around the county to hear their concerns. One such session yielded his proposal to have the county build a golf cart path crossing in Sun City Center so its residents could more easily and safely get to the new Walmart Supercenter. Work is under way on that now.

Beckner has won plaudits from environmental groups and those who support growth management, particularly in contrast to predecessor Blair. Supporters say he has shown a willingness to question the staff, and other commissioners, when he doesn't think the party line sounds right.

"I think he's doing quite well for being the new kid on the block," said Terry Flott, chairwoman of the United Citizens Action Network. "He doesn't seem to back down to the old-timers, the lifers on the board."

Friends and foes say he appears to hold no grudges. George Sucarichi, chief of the county's politically powerful firefighters union and a relative of Blair's who campaigned for him, says he has noticed no residual effects.

"I haven't seen any evidence of that," Sucarichi said. "He looks beyond his personal considerations. I think he's been very supportive and very proactive in terms of public safety."

Beckner has floated at least two major initiatives. One is a review and revamp of county policies in an effort to find and rewrite any that serve as stumbling blocks to economic development. The other would assess new fees to jail inmates that, if Sheriff David Gee approves, would raise money to pay for things like consumer protection and other programs that assist victims of crime.

He's working on a third — an overhaul of the county's juvenile justice system that, if approved, would emphasize rehabilitation over jail for many youthful criminals in an effort to keep them out of adult prisons and save the county money.

Beckner is one of several commissioners who have probed for explanations for the pay raises Bean doled out to several of her most highly paid employees, as well as herself. He asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look at the one that affected her own pay.

Yet he also was the commissioner who made a motion to let her keep her job on the condition that she work with the board to develop a vision for the future of Hillsborough County government.

If nothing else, his presence has reshaped the balance on the board in ways that have likely changed the dynamics of some of its major debates.

Had Blair still been on the commission, a recent vote to ask residents if they support raising the sales tax to pay for transit would have been 4-3, not 5-2, if it had come to a vote at all. And the discussion would have been far more contentious.

Other commissioners, notably Republicans Hagan and Mark Sharpe, would have faced more pressure to back down from their support of the initiative, said David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association.

Caton's group has vigorously opposed gay rights initiatives. He sent out a last-minute recorded phone message to voters before Beckner's election victory, warning that the then-candidate would advocate a gay agenda. He said the call has proved true.

Lately, Caton has been an early opponent of the transit initiative. He argues that Beckner's presence has had a bigger effect on tilting the makeup of the board, particularly when it comes to transit.

"If Brian were there, I think things would have been different," Caton said. "The chemistry would have been a whole lot different."

Hillsborough's Commissioner Beckner doesn't always heed advice to go slowly 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 8:03pm]
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