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Taxpayers footing the bill for Hillsborough commissioner's ads

TAMPA — In an open letter to the residents of his district, Kevin White touts his involvement in initiatives since getting elected as Hillsborough County commissioner.

From affordable housing to promoting minority business hiring at Tampa General Hospital, White says he has listened to the needs of his urban district and acted quickly to achieve results.

The letters appeared March 19 as full-page ads in La Gaceta and the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, newspapers that target Hills­borough's Latin and African-American residents, respectively. The cost: $1,875.

And taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

White, 45, a Democrat, is running for a second term as the District 3 commissioner representing much of Central and East Tampa, as well as parts of eastern Hillsborough. Two of his Democratic challengers say that ads look like taxpayer-funded campaign literature.

"It does surprise me in the midst of budget cuts, people getting laid off, plus the fact that members of his own body are suing him for repayment for the costs of a lawsuit, that money is being spent now to promote his supposed accomplishments," said former state Sen. Les Miller.

Valerie Goddard, a consultant to nonprofit agencies, also brought up the sexual discrimination judgment against White last year that has cost the county $425,000. Commissioners have voted to sue him to recoup the costs, which White has said he can't afford to pay.

"Based on the commissioner's track record, it just seems like the taxpayer tab is still running," Goddard said.

White said he has run the ads annually in each of the nearly four years he has served on the commission, not just this election year. He said they are a relatively cost-effective way of informing residents in his district of issues he is addressing on their behalf.

Mailing the letters to the same number of people the newspapers reach would be comparatively cost prohibitive, he said.

"This is not a campaign ad at all. This is an update from the district commissioner to his district," White said. "I believe that people really need to know what their elected officials are doing in the community, either on their behalf or for the benefit of the greater community."

The letter lists 17 areas of achievement, from opposing certain types of budget cuts of importance to his district to fighting a proposed "tent city" for homeless people in eastern Hillsborough. It reads like some of his past campaign literature and features his picture, but also includes the county logo and his office phone number.

As for achievements, he can lay claim to some more than others. He indeed singularly pressed for changes in the way Tampa General Hospital hires minority contractors, but was merely part of the board that unanimously prevented the county from ending after-school programs in county parks.

White's ad is just the latest of the many creative ways commissioners use to get their name out and have the taxpayers foot the bill.

For years, Commissioner Jim Norman has canvassed neighborhoods, election year or not, soliciting feedback using door hangers bought by taxpayers. Stacey Easterling sent out a slick mass mailing of her "midterm report" to thousands of homes when she was a commissioner.

Both got scrutiny in 2001 when the hangers and mailers started appearing outside their districts before an election for an at-large seat both Republicans were expected to pursue. Both of them ultimately did enter the race, and Norman won.

Several commissioners since have crafted their own version of the congressional franking privilege, touting their achievement or promoting upcoming meetings by mass mail.

Elections officials and their lawyers have responded that elected officials may use government resources to inform residents about issues as long as they're not asking for votes.

"What we have been told as a rule of thumb is that as long as it represents what a commissioner has done in their capacities as a commissioner, it's an appropriate service to provide to them," said county communications director Lori Hudson, whose office laid out White's letter and arranged for the ad purchase at both papers.

Miller acknowledged that he was able to buy newspaper ads or send letters following the legislative session when he served in the House and Senate. But he said they were much more generic, informing voters what the legislature did generally rather than what he achieved individually. And they had to be approved by the presiding officer.

There's no vetting procedure at the county.

"To me, this was like a piece in the middle of a campaign that could be construed as a piece of campaign literature," Miller said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White touts his actions on his constituents' behalf in a pair of full-page newspaper ads that appeared earlier this month in two local newspapers.

Taxpayers footing the bill for Hillsborough commissioner's ads 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 10:20pm]
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