This year's Pinellas County Commission race is shaping up to be more competitive than any in recent memory, thanks to the public's disaffection with the political status quo at all levels of government, and the Jim Smith property purchase scandal from which Pinellas commissioners can neither run nor hide.
While incumbent Pinellas commissioners generally have served as long as they wanted, facing no or only weak opposition at election time, three of the four seats scheduled for the ballot this year have attracted multiple office seekers. And two of the four incumbents have decided to bow out.
Veteran Commissioner Bob Stewart, who has been an elected official for 23 years, has chosen to retire. Commissioner Ronnie Duncan isn't seeking a second term. Both said they wanted to spend more time with their families, but the amount of time they spent wrestling with the decision and consulting political advisers suggests their reluctance to depart. Until the Jim Smith affair, there was no end in sight to either man's career on the commission.
Two people have so far indicated they will run for Stewart's seat, and four have filed for Duncan's seat. Of the two remaining incumbents on the ballot this year, only Commissioner Ken Welch has not drawn a challenger. Commissioner Karen Seel has one challenger, but it is still early.
There are lessons in this situation that all commission candidates should take to heart. Lesson No. 1: The public doesn't want cronyism and closed-door dealings in the county courthouse.
The county's quiet purchase of Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith's flood-prone private property exposed the nonchalance and lack of transparency with which county officials conducted important public business. Commissioners voted to buy the land, which Smith claimed a county crew had damaged, at a price more than four times the value Smith's own office assigned to it, and did so without public discussion. A grand jury investigation found no criminal wrongdoing, but the county attorney lost her job, the county administrator resigned, and then-Commission Chairman Duncan was so involved in the deal that it is little wonder he had no stomach for facing the voters this year.
The public will expect future Pinellas commissions to demonstrate better decisionmaking skills and bring real transparency to the organization. Oh, and to work harder, too. Some commissioners come to meetings poorly prepared and with few questions — another observation of those watching the commission with a more critical eye these days.
Further, voters should ask how each of the candidates would repair the fractured processes and procedures that led so many county officials to march in lockstep off a cliff for Smith. There have been some procedural changes already — new rules for the county attorney's office and changes in the county real estate division — but much remains to be done.
"Change" is the watchword in politics in 2008, and not just at the national level. The bar has been raised this year for Pinellas commission candidates, too. Making the cut will not, and should not, be easy.