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Tidy signs belie Dade City's messy commission race

DADE CITY

Spring brings an explosion of azaleas and dogwoods to old Dade City. This year it also brought political signs.

Lots of them, lining the brick streets, stuck in flower beds and thick, manicured lawns.

In some neighborhoods, the signs seems to come in clusters of three. On one side of the street, you'll see Shive, Avila, Penix. On the other side, Agnello, Beebe, Van Gorden.

Candidate Mike Agnello, who owns a local tavern, says this election is "like a game of three-on-three basketball."

The campaign for City Commission has attracted some chatter about improvements to roads and recreation, as if the city had any money to spend after voters statewide called for property tax relief.

The real issue in Dade City is a candidate who is not even on the ballot, a mother of four with a master's degree from Yale, a woman who dropped a bomb last year by making allegations against Mayor Hutch Brock and then-city manager Harold Sample, men with deep roots and popularity in eastern Pasco County.

That woman, Camille Hernandez, survived the fallout and an attempt to recall her from office. Now, depending on how voters respond April 8, she stands to gain real power on the commission. At least two candidates are solidly in her camp.

Brock, a lawyer and one of the town's favorite sons, is leaving office. So commissioners will select a mayor. Will it be Hernandez?

In Dade City, being mayor is largely ceremonial. You get to cut ribbons and bang the gavel. But incumbent Steve Van Gorden says this is why Hernandez would want it:

"A perception of being in charge of things and prestige, that's just my opinion."

• • •

Hernandez had been on the City Commission for a year when she wrote a letter to the governor calling for an investigation of Brock and Sample. The charges were quite a mouthful: "coercion, confabulation, corruption and deceit."

Newspaper columnists poked fun at Hernandez for misspelling Gov. Charlie Crist's name. She stopped speaking to the media, including for this story. Brock compiled 100 pages of city records to refute her allegations. The other commissioners gave her no encouragement.

The governor declined and Hernandez found herself under attack.

Which brings us back to the political campaign signs.

Curtis Beebe, a computer consultant with no political history, led the effort to gather signatures for a rare recall election that would remove Hernandez from office if successful. Brock eventually asked Beebe to shut down the effort. The mayor said there were more important issues at hand. At the time, the city had no manager, as Sample had quit, no police chief, and faced budget cuts.

In December, Brock announced he would not run for re-election. In his eight years on the commission, he had missed too many of his children's soccer games, he said, adding that he made his decision before Hernandez sent her letter to the governor.

Today, Beebe faces Jim Shive in the campaign. Shive campaigned for Hernandez in 2006 after his job with the city was eliminated. He had worked for the city since the late 1970s.

Shive stresses his city experience in his bid for the election. But Sample said Shive's employment was marred with infighting and negativity.

"He just couldn't get along with anybody," Sample said last week.

Sample went further in a discussion about Shive. Shortly after Hernandez defeated longtime commissioner Bill Dennis, she and her husband David, a medical consult with commercial property downtown, invited him to dinner.

Over wine at the Saddlebrook Resort, Sample said, David Hernandez asked him to reconsider Shive's employment with the water department.

He refused. Two weeks later, Camille Hernandez called Sample's management style "extremely concerning" in a city e-mail.

The two had just participated in an intense exchange of e-mails about whether Hernandez, as a commissioner-elect, was bound by the Sunshine Laws, which bars elected officials from talking privately about official business outside public meetings.

Hernandez didn't think the law applied to her. It did.

The Hernandezes and Shive did not return calls from the Times to discuss Sample's recollections.

• • •

Commissioner Steve Van Gorden, the principal at Hudson Middle School, also supported Hernandez during her 2006 campaign. There were dinner parties, shared pews at church and a $100 contribution.

"I made a huge mistake," Van Gorden says now.

Things were fine until one summer night at Disney World.

Van Gorden and his family were on vacation when his cell phone rang. It was David Hernandez, and he wanted a seat on a city committee, Van Gorden said.

But Van Gorden had promised the appointment to someone else. Van Gorden said David Hernandez warned the decision would mark his political demise. (Hernandez declined comment when a reporter asked about the incident.)

Van Gorden is running for re-election for Group 4. He has the biggest war chest so far, $10,570. His opponent, Robert Avila, has not returned phone calls from the Times. He works for Ricoh Americas, an office supply company, in Riverview.

Avila has raised $2,200, including $453 from David Hernandez.

After Camille Hernandez was elected, she sent out a statement in which she thanked Avila's wife, Lucy, for her help in the campaign.

• • •

The other race pits tavern owner Mike Agnello against 14-year incumbent Eunice Penix, a retired educator. Both said they are not involved in any alliances.

Penix drove Hernandez home one rainy night after a commission meeting, leaving Van Gorden, at least, to conclude the two commissioners are friendly. David Hernandez's company, Radiation Protection Association LLC, gave her campaign $200.

• • •

On Monday, Hutch Brock sat in the auditorium at Pasco Middle School and watched the commission candidates discuss their campaigns.

All but Shive and Avila agreed to participate in the candidate forum.

Much of the discussion alluded to Camille Hernandez, which frustrated Brock.

The economy is hurting the downtown shop owners. The city just hired a new manager and police chief. Next year, the budget may be tighter than ever. Brock said these matters should be the focus of this year's election, not Hernandez and her 2007 letter to the governor.

"There are more important issues at hand," Brock said.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached

at htravis@sptimes.com

or (352) 521-6518.

. fast facts

About the commission

Elections are April 8.

Dade City commissioners are elected citywide, by group, to serve four-year terms on a five-member board. They choose a mayor from among their ranks. Commissioners are paid $1,200 annually. The mayor is paid $1,800.

The candidates

Group 3

Group 4

Group 5

Photo not available

The candidates

Group 3

Group 4

Group 5

Tidy signs belie Dade City's messy commission race 03/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 5:18pm]
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