Only one of four Pinellas county commissioners whose terms were up will be on the Nov. 4 ballot. Two decided not to seek re-election and another automatically won another term without opposition. That guarantees at least two new faces on a commission that faces enormous challenges, from shrinking tax revenues to affordable housing, the homeless, indigent health care and mass transit.
District 1 (countywide)
It is not a close call between the two candidates hoping to replace departing Commissioner Ronnie Duncan. Political consultant Neil Brickfield, a Republican, is far better prepared than Democrat Paul Matton, who works for a wholesale automobile dealer.
Brickfield, 45, has long followed county government and knows the issues. A former Safety Harbor city commissioner, he ran for the County Commission in 2004 but lost to Duncan in the primary. He defeated a better known candidate, School Board member Jane Gallucci, in this year's Republican primary.
Brickfield is known for his aggressiveness, work ethic and questioning nature — traits that could be helpful on a County Commission that sometimes hasn't aired issues thoroughly. He says public safety would be his top priority as a commissioner, but that does not mean he opposes consolidation. To cut costs, he advocates fire department consolidation as well as teaming with other local governments to seek better deals for contracts, fleet operations and employee health insurance. He is a strong supporter of maintaining the Brooker Creek Preserve as a nature preserve, not a place for water treatment plants or ballfields. He calls for easier public access to county records, supports construction of more affordable housing, and believes the county should find a way to serve the homeless who are mentally ill.
Matton, 57, is uninformed and uses political platitudes such as "I'm just tired of business as usual" to cover his lack of preparation for the post.
For Pinellas County Commission District 1, the Times recommends Neil Brickfield. Nancy Bostock
District 3 (countywide)
The race to succeed retiring Commissioner Bob Stewart features two familiar faces with solid records of public service. Republican Nancy Bostock has served 10 years on the School Board during a period when the district hired two superintendents and made sweeping changes in student assignment plans. Democrat Rene Flowers served eight years on the St. Petersburg City Council in an era when downtown was rejuvenated and considerable public investments were made in parks, libraries and neighborhoods.
Bostock, 40, has the wider experience and the demonstrated ability to view complicated issues in a broader context. In her years on the School Board, she became less rigid in her opinions and developed more nuanced views on issues ranging from the FCAT to student discipline. On a board that too often micromanages and suffers from personality clashes, she has remained reasonable and respectful. Her socially conservative views, such as her support of vouchers to cover private tuition at public cost, should not be as concerning or as relevant on the County Commission as they were on the School Board.
At the county courthouse, Bostock could strike a balance between the School Board's penchant for public nitpicking and the commission's tendency to rubber-stamp decisions in public that have been discussed with county administrators in private. Her developing positions on key issues reflect a similar effort to blend various approaches. She would focus on existing programs to expand affordable housing and on voluntary rather than mandatory development rules to create more. She acknowledges the need for homeless shelters but wants to address the factors that lead to homelessness to reduce the long-term expense of providing beds. She wants to find ways to provide more access to primary providers and managed care for the uninsured who wind up in expensive emergency rooms at public cost. She recognizes the need in North Pinellas to both preserve environmentally sensitive land and meet the demand for more recreational facilities for children.
Flowers, 43, won a close Democratic primary race in August. She helped create a more collegial atmosphere on the St. Petersburg City Council and was a strong advocate for affordable housing on the council and as president of the Florida League of Cities. She speaks knowledgeably about government budgets and balancing needs with declining tax revenues. But Bostock is more likely to help develop more creative approaches to some of the county's most pressing problems.
For Pinellas County Commission District 3, the Times recommends Nancy Bostock. Karen Seel
Republican Karen Seel is the only incumbent on the November ballot. She drew two challengers for the District 5 seat in the Clearwater-Largo area: Democrat Norm Roche and independent Jake Mullens.
Mullens, 55, a roofing contractor, argues the commission should more aggressively cut spending. His knowledge of the county is minimal, and he is not a viable candidate.
Roche, 46, is a former county employee who now works as business development coordinator for a Largo engineering firm. He is making his third run at a commission seat. Roche is well-informed, but his flair for the dramatic makes some uncomfortable.
In these extraordinarily challenging times for local governments, Seel's experience is particularly valuable. A county commissioner since 1999, she has a reputation as a smart, effective leader who seeks creative solutions to difficult problems. Her hard work on transportation is an example. Seel, 50, was a leader in pushing for a transportation system involving real-time control of traffic signals using cameras and computers. She also led a campaign to improve U.S. 19.
Seel's experience is needed as the county tries to fit its mission to today's economic realities. Always the collaborator, she wants county and city officials to join in talks about more efficient ways to do the government's business. Seel understands the county needs more affordable housing and she offers new ideas, such as a county tax credit program, to spur construction of those homes. She wants to recruit more high-wage jobs for Pinellas, create more livable neighborhoods, and improve services for the needy and sick.
While Seel has a long record of accomplishments, she has one spectacular failure. Like the other six county commissioners, Seel voted to purchase an overpriced, flood-prone home site from county Property Appraiser Jim Smith without any public discussion. The deal led to a grand jury investigation, the forced departures of the county administrator and county attorney, and public mortification for Seel, who states, "I greatly regret" the Smith land purchase.
Commissioners should guard against overrelying on staff and opting for expedience over public process — a lesson Seel has taken to heart. Now she examines agenda items more carefully and refuses to vote with the group unless she is comfortable. She was recently the only commissioner to vote against giving the county administrator expanded authority to buy land without oversight by the commission. Seel has learned from the Smith scandal, and it should not outweigh an otherwise solid record as a thoughtful public servant.
For County Commission District 5, the Times recommends Karen Seel.