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Voters didn't get to pick the real boss

I decided to do what I usually do when I want straight answers: go right to the top and direct my questions to the guy running the show.

So, Gary Schraut — Realtor, developer and chairman of a soft-money electioneering group that helped oust incumbent Democratic county Commissioner Diane Rowden — what do you want to see on the commission's agenda in the next four years?

A temporary impact fee reduction, an idea the commission rejected in August?

How about dumping the 2006 rule that requires a 4-1 majority to amend the county's comprehensive plan?

Or maybe a comp plan change for the Quarry Preserve, a new city planned for Florida Rock Industry's mined-out 4,200-acre quarry north of Brooksville.

Schraut likes all these ideas to some degree, meaning you can pretty well bet they'll get a sympathetic hearing from the current commission.

Schraut, of course, said I'm overstating his influence. So do the other builders and developers willing to talk (not many, by the way).

Okay, but it's hard to deny that our two newly elected Republican commissioners, John Druzbick and Jim Adkins, are indebted to the housing industry because of a campaign tactic new to Hernando commission races: late-season attack ads paid for with money raised outside the candidates' campaigns and the fundraising rules that apply to them.

It's also hard not to see that this display of political muscle will send a chilling message to current commissioners — or staffers — who might want to challenge these interests.

"To be honest with you, my timing was exquisite," said former county development director Grant Tolbert, who retired in September.

Strange, because I thought we had all recognized the dangers of unchecked growth — rampant speculation that inflated our tax bills, for example, and the low wages that come with overreliance on the housing industry.

But now we've all but invited the following folks to the dais:

• Schraut, chairman of the Council for Stronger Neighborhoods, a statewide group that raised more than $600,000 from Realtors and spent about $20,000 for campaign fliers that rehashed Rowden's 15-year-old Sunshine law violation.

• Businessman Tom Barnette, who contributed to the Committee to Protect Florida, a soft-money organization that created an anti-Rowden Web site; Gene Manuel, founder of Coastal Engineering Associates, who also contributed to the committee, and landowner Tommy Bronson, whose $3,000 donation was six times the maximum legal contribution to a commission campaign.

• Blaise Ingoglia, who said he spent $25,000 of his own money on an ad campaign attacking Rowden and fellow Democratic incumbent Chris Kingsley.

Ingoglia says otherwise, but his campaign may have been enough to tip the election in favor of Adkins, who won by less than 2 percent. Druzbick, on the other hand, prevailed by nearly 6,000 votes and probably didn't need much help, Schraut said. He added that the rules for soft-money groups limit their contact with candidates, and Druzbick never saw or approved the anti-Rowden flier.

In other words, Druzbick let Schraut take charge even before he was elected. Personally, I don't find that reassuring.

Voters didn't get to pick the real boss 11/08/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 7:09pm]
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