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Two enter race for Stabins' Hernando County Commission seat

BROOKSVILLE — While the election is more than a year away, candidates already are lining up for the District 1 seat on the Hernando County Commission.

The issues driving them are not unexpected: the economy, jobs, government spending — and the incumbent.

Republican incumbent Jeff Stabins, 51, acknowledges that challengers might "smell blood in the water'' because he has been a controversial figure in recent months. But he insists that now is not the time to change horses.

"I think our county needs experience right now as we continue through these very, very difficult times,'' said Stabins, who is completing his second term on the commission. A retired teacher, he previously served three terms in the state House.

Republican Matthew Peters, the county's veterans services officer, and independent Joseph Swilley Sr., an air conditioning technician, have prequalified as the first two opponents who want to replace Stabins.

District 1 is the smallest commission district because it includes the densely populated center of Spring Hill.

Peters, 46, was born and raised in Dunedin and after high school enlisted in the Marine Corps. Afterward, he attended the police academy and graduated, working for a while as a Clearwater police officer.

But the military pulled him back, and he re-enlisted, retiring from the service in 2005.

Peters knew the Nature Coast because as a child his father would bring him to coastal Hernando and Citrus counties to camp. So he decided to settle in the area. He began working in the county's veterans services office in 2005, leaving briefly to work for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, then returning in 2007.

If elected, Peters would have to leave that job, but he vowed to volunteer his time to help with veterans services.

He is co-chairman of the county's Transportation Disadvantaged Local Coordinating Board, a member of the management bargaining team with Teamsters Local 79 and a member of the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board.

"The reason that I'm doing this is that it is time for change. We need to get our economy back on track and get spending under control,'' Peters said.

He filed his papers with the elections office in the spring, before many of the recent controversies over Stabins' behavior. Peters declined to comment on those issues, saying, "I think Commissioner Stabins has done a good job, but I feel it's time for a change.''

While he understands why the county pushes job growth at the Airport Industrial Park, Peters said more jobs should also be developed in the western part of the county. The county should also be working to develop more jobs related to its special attributes, such as beefing up promotion of fishing opportunities.

Peters is critical of the way the county has handled the Hernando Beach Channel dredge. There should have been a better background check on those involved, and costs should have been more carefully controlled, he said. But Peters said the project needs to be finished.

Swilley is also critical of the dredge, and said he would not have approved such an expensive project that benefits so few people. If it could be proven that there would be economic benefit to equal the cost, he might reconsider that viewpoint, he said.

A native of Orlando, Swilley lived for years in Mississippi, but returned to Florida in 2000, moving to Hernando County. Swilley, 52, earned his GED and later served in the Navy, where he took numerous electronics classes. He served in supervisory jobs for several employers, including Kodak.

But after a layoff, he decided to become an air conditioning technician, knowing there would always be job security in Florida.

An avid reader since he was a teenager, Swilley said what he has seen happen in Hernando County and on a larger scale at the state and federal levels pushed him into politics.

"I don't agree with the way things are going,'' he said. By running for County Commission, he said, "I can be where I can do something instead of crying about it.''

He said he believes he can do well, even as an independent, and that he is running as one because he believes some of the viewpoints of both parties.

"I believe we can be more fiscally responsible,'' he said, noting that when he and his wife have seen decreases in their income, they have responded by decreasing their spending. The county should do the same, he said.

Swilley said that as a commissioner, he would study issues and listen to residents. That alone, he said, would put him ahead of Stabins.

"Jeff Stabins doesn't do his job. He's a part-time commissioner collecting a full-time paycheck,'' Swilley said. "If you get paid that much, you should be focused on this county.''

Stabins has been criticized for spending much of his summer at a new home he bought in New York. He says he has kept up with county business and has returned for most of the commission meetings, although he missed the last two.

He originally said he would seek re-election, then announced that he wouldn't. He briefly considered running for Congress in New York before dropping that plan and saying he would seek another commission term.

The issues facing the county at this time are complex and require the leadership of people who understand those complexities, Stabins said.

"I bring to the table the kind of background, leadership and experience that the board needs right now,'' he said.

County commissioners serve four-year terms. The commission seats for Districts 3 and 5 — currently held by commissioners John Druzbick and Jim Adkins — are also up next year. No candidates have yet prefiled paperwork with the supervisor of elections in either of those races.

The state-set county commission salary is $62,523. Stabins has opted for a lower salary this year — $52,000.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Two enter race for Stabins' Hernando County Commission seat 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 8:04pm]
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