Thursday, November 23, 2017

March column: Hillsborough commissioners switching districts to run again


County Commissioner Sandy Murman now says she is "probably" going to leave her district seat to run for a countywide seat in 2018, which is setting off a flurry of jockeying and maneuvering in what promises to be a wild 2018 county election season.

Among those seen as potential candidates to replace Murman in the District 1 seat are state Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce board Chairman Mike Griffin. Other names are also being bandied about.

But the 2018 campaign could also bring to the fore an unpleasant issue for the commission members: Three of the seven commissioners — Victor Crist, Ken Hagan and Murman — could be seeking new seats that would enable them to avoid term limits. That could draw backlash from term limits advocates, or provide an angle of attack for their political opponents.

Murman faces a 2020 term limit. Jumping to a countywide seat would restart her term limit clock, and 2018 will be a good year to do so because two of the three countywide seats will be available and she could avoid running against an incumbent commissioner.

Countywide Commissioner Al Higginbotham is retiring, and Hagan, facing a 2018 term limit in his countywide seat, has filed to run for Victor Crist's District 2 seat.

In 2020, newly elected Pat Kemp will be eligible to run for re-election to her countywide seat.

Meanwhile Crist, also term-limited, has said he plans to run for one of the two countywide seats next year.

Under the county's term limits charter provision, a term-limited commissioner can continue to serve by moving from a district seat to a countywide seat or vice versa.

Cruz, term-limited as a state House member, has talked about seeking a commissioner's seat, initially focusing on one of the countywide seats, but now is said by insiders to be eying Murman's District 1 seat.

That district, covering South Tampa, much of Town 'n' Country and West Tampa, and much of the South Shore area, leans Republican, while Democrats have fared well recently in countywide races. But facing an incumbent in a countywide race — Murman or Crist — could be tougher for Cruz than an open district seat.

Griffin, a real estate executive, was widely said earlier this year to be exploring a run for Tampa mayor in 2019, but has switched his sights to the county race, insiders say. Neither he nor Cruz could be reached for comment late this week about their plans.

Murman responded via text message when asked about 2018: "Probably District 7 countywide."

To run for the countywide seat, Murman would have to file an irrevocable resignation from her current seat, effective on Election Day, but she wouldn't have to file it until 10 days before qualifying begins on June 18, 2018. That could lead to a fast scramble among candidates to replace her in the district seat.

Mark Proctor in judicial scramble

It looked like an unusual matchup — two prominent criminal defense attorneys, Adam Bantner and Eilam Isaak, filed on the same day a week ago to run for the Group 2 county judgeship from which Judge Herb Berkowitz is retiring.

Bantner is well-known as a Republican Party and civic activist who's been president of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club and member of the county commissioner's Citizens Advisory Committee.

Isaak has no political experience but is well known as a DUI lawyer, a "DUI Gladiator," according to the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But both wanted to hire political consultant Mark Proctor, who's built a record of success running judicial campaigns.

So late this week, there was a switch. Isaak is now running in Group 8, where county Judge Gaston Fernandez is retiring.

But then there was another hitch. Robin Fernandez Fuson, who also wanted to hire Proctor, had already filed for the Group 8 seat.

He has now withdrawn and filed for the Group 25 circuit judge seat, where Robert Foster is retiring.

"I consulted with my team, and it looked like a good fit," said Fuson.

Proctor denied he arranged the switches.

"I didn't suggest this. They made the decision and they came to me and it just worked out," he said.

He said he was informally advising Fuson before the switches, but didn't agree to work for him until after the candidates proposed the arrangement.

Fuson will face an opponent, Cissy Boza Sevelin. Proctor is not working for her.

DROP complaint against Frank dropped

The Florida Ethics Commission has dismissed a complaint alleging that Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank improperly rehired her chief deputy Dan Klein after he retired under the state's Deferred Retirement Option or DROP program, making him a double-dipper.

Klein technically retired in January, but returned to work as a contractor who's actually employed by a St. Augustine company called SS Solutions. It specializes in putting Florida DROP retirees back on the job after their retirement.

Frank said his services now cost slightly less than his previous salary and benefits. But under the DROP program, Klein also is receiving his state pension — $79,000 a year — and got a DROP lump sum payment of $381,000. That payment reflects the retirement benefits he would have received since the date he entered the program if he had instead retired on that date.

The DROP program allows retirees to return to their jobs while collecting a pension and the lump sum payment, which has led to repeated controversies statewide over what critics call double-dipping.

Normally, the employees must wait six months before returning to the public payroll. But because Klein isn't technically an employee, the commission ruled the move doesn't violate the law. The commission also said it was given no evidence showing "wrongful intent" in Frank's re-hiring of Klein.

Before his retirement, Frank's office said, his salary and benefits totaled $235,315 a year. It now pays SS Solutions $4,400 a week for him, or $228,800 a year.

The DROP program was intended to encourage senior government employees to retire, so they could be replaced by younger, lower-paid workers, but it sometimes has the opposite effect. In 2001, adding a sweetener for legislators who also had government jobs, the Legislature created a loophole that allowed DROP employees to return to work, collecting both salary and pension at once.

The complaint against Frank was filed by Tampa accountant Mark Garcia following a story about the situation by 10News WTSP reporter Mike Deeson.

The complaint alleges that Frank has other employees working under the same arrangement, but a Frank spokesman denied that.

The complaint also alleges that Frank continues to employ Klein because, "Ms. Frank is 87 years old and does not come into the office to do the job she is paid $159,000 a year to do," an accusation that dogged Frank during her hard-fought re-election last year, but which she denied. The commission said her office attendance doesn't determine whether she's performing her duties as required by law.

Asked whether she thought Klein's re-hiring violated the intent of the DROP program, Frank said through a spokesman, "Our job is not to interpret the Legislature's intent but rather to follow the law and we have done that." She said she was "pleased that the Ethics Commission came to the same conclusion we did" on the complaint.

Contact William March at [email protected]

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