Times recommendations for Pinellas County Commission

Like many local governments, Pinellas County is struggling to maintain services while making deep budget cuts because of falling revenues. It is a difficult time to be a public official, and two Pinellas County commissioners have challengers in the Nov. 2 election.

Calvin Harris | District 2 (countywide)

Voters have seen this match-up before: County Commissioner Calvin Harris versus Norm Roche. The last time was in the 2006 Democratic primary, which Harris easily won. This time, Roche has switched parties to challenge Harris as a Republican. Harris remains by far the best choice.

Harris, 69, gets strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. Low key and always civil, he keeps politics out of his decision-making and promotes a common-sense approach to governing. A former teacher and St. Petersburg College administrator, Harris wants to retain a high quality of life in Pinellas so young people will remain here to raise their families.

As progressive programs have been slashed during three years of budget cuts, Harris has worried about the impact on residents. He recently persuaded the commission to shelve park visitor fees proposed by the county staff, arguing that visiting parks are one of the few free activities left for struggling families. He has emphasized economic development initiatives, and he wants to improve county communication with residents.

Roche, 48, was a public relations specialist in the county utilities department from 1994 to 2004 and now works for an engineering firm. He is determined to get on the commission — he's tried four times since 2004, challenging three different commissioners. Through his campaigns, letters to newspapers and online comment boards, he criticizes county government and argues his own ideas are better. Central to Roche's 2010 campaign is a contention that "we do not have to raise taxes, add fees or cut needed services and jobs" to balance the county budget. That is unrealistic, given the decline in tax revenue over the last three years.

In addition to Harris and Roche, there are two write-in candidates in the District 2 race.

For County Commission District 2, the Times recommends Calvin Harris.

Bob Hackworth | District 4 (north Pinellas)

One of the most-watched local races is former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth's challenge of longtime County Commissioner Susan Latvala for the District 4 seat representing North Pinellas. Latvala is probably the most powerful member of the County Commission, backed by some of the county's most prominent individuals and well-known corporations. But she has been a lightning rod for controversy, and her decisions and comments often reflect an insensitivity to the public's concerns.

Hackworth, 55, possesses an appealing combination of government experience and fresh perspective on county issues. Raised in Dunedin, he left town for a career as a professional bike racer and sports marketer. He returned in 1995, joined his family's textbook publishing firm, and ran for the Dunedin City Commission in 2002. A virtual unknown, he campaigned door to door and won. He was elected mayor in 2006 with 87 percent of the vote. He served one term before mounting an unsuccessful effort two years ago to unseat U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

Hackworth, a Democrat, says he wants to be "the best county commissioner money can't buy." He declines contributions over $100 or from corporations doing business with the county. He promises the same independence he displayed as a Dunedin official, when he routinely challenged the status quo. In Dunedin, he advocated a policy restricting gifts for public officials, promoted racial diversity and inclusiveness, worked diligently for protection of waterfront land and proposed efficiencies and lower taxes. Hackworth never hesitated to bluntly assess city government's shortcomings and to set about fixing them.

Hackworth's creative problem-solving could be invaluable on the County Commission. He said he will work for development of new revenue sources, consolidation of services such as fire protection and EMS, creation of partnership agreements with cities and other taxing districts, development of well-planned mass transit, protection of environmental lands and more government transparency.

Latvala, 61, has served 10 years on the commission and won a three-way Republican primary in August. She has not had such a credible challenger until this election. That political security has fed an arrogance and allowed her to avoid accountability for some of her most controversial positions. Among those was her push for use of preservation lands for ball fields and water projects.

Latvala, unlike other commissioners, also is stubbornly unapologetic about the county's quiet purchase of former property appraiser Jim Smith's overpriced, flood-prone land. She recently dismissed the whole Smith affair, calling it "no big deal," though the county administrator and county attorney lost their jobs and a grand jury criticized the commission for its vote.

Latvala's tendency toward sharp retorts has offended residents, and her behind-the-scenes power plays have contributed to the bad blood between the county and Pinellas cities.

For District 4, the Times recommends Bob Hackworth.

Times recommendations for Pinellas County Commission 10/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 5:40pm]

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