For the past two years, Pasco County's planning initiatives have earned regionwide accolades for innovation as the county prepares itself for the inevitable — renewed future growth.
Commissioners divided the county into market areas to encourage specific kinds of development in certain geographic areas and to curb the opportunities for sprawl.
The commission also replaced its transportation impact charge with a less expensive mobility fee to ensure continued funding for transit improvements while also providing incentives for the private sector to develop employment centers and create jobs.
Now, just a year into this promising and progressive attempt to change the way Pasco County does business, a handful of County Commission candidates are campaigning are under the guise of reducing regulation and cutting fees.
It is a platform that effectively undermines the very changes the business community called for in the 2008 Urban Land Institute study of how to boost economic development in Pasco. Worse, the tear-down-government cabal offers no reasonable alternatives for paying for infrastructure or managing growth.
Three commission seats are up for grabs, including two that will be decided in winner-take-all elections on Aug. 14 because there are no other candidates running in November.
Commissioners are elected by voters countywide, but candidates must meet district residency requirements.
Here are the Times recommendations:
Ted Schrader: District 1, open primary
Ted Schrader, 56, a three-term Republican commissioner, is the board's leader even without the title of chairman. While some of the board members can get lost in the weeds, Schrader maintains a big-picture view. He said he is most proud of the Pasadena Hills sector planning that devised a 50-year program for development and infrastructure financing in a large portion of rural east Pasco.
Land-use maps aside, Schrader also is the commissioner most responsible for cautious county spending even during the years of booming real estate values. As a result, the county's residential property tax bills still compare favorably to mid-1990s levels.
Schrader is opposed by two first-time candidates, Ron Oakley and Rachel O'Connor, both Republicans.
Oakley, 67, owner of Oakley Groves, Inc. and Oakley Transport, offers a generic platform of lowering taxes and impact fees and "creating a friendly attitude toward business'' but with few specifics. His time on the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District helped prepare him for this run for the commission, but Oakley offers no valid reason to replace Schrader.
O'Connor, 27, is a graduate student completing her master's degree in international relations and comparative politics from the University of South Florida. The former Republican Party field representative is not prepared to serve. She regurgitates the party line about out-of-control spending, but her limited life experiences and unfamiliarity with county budget issues undermine her candidacy.
The Times recommends Ted Schrader for the District 1 open primary.
Kathryn Starkey: District 3, Republicans
It's not easy job to follow an institution. But, that is the challenge facing the District 3 candidates seeking to replace Ann Hildebrand who is retiring after 28 years on the commission. It is a crowded field of five with the winner facing Democrat Matt Murphy in November. However, one Republican stands out and that is former Pasco School Board member Kathryn Starkey.
Starkey, 54, is seeking a return to her roots — county policy. As a citizen activist in the late 1990s, she pushed the commission to control billboard proliferation and founded Scenic Pasco which championed other aesthetic controls on bus benches, business signs and big box stores. She helped rewrite the county's land-use plan and served on the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board for seven years. She served six years on the school board where she advocated the co-location of county and school recreational facilities and she best understands the need for schools, county and industrial recruiters to work in tandem to improve job opportunities in Pasco. The rest of the field simply cannot match her experience.
Karen King, 62, a member of the county's Tourist Development Council, is well-versed on tourism, but offers a thin platform on other areas.
Christopher Gregg, 42, pushes an extremely conservative agenda and wants to explore charter government for Pasco. It's an unnecessary exercise that is not guaranteed to reduce the cost or improve efficiency of local government. His opposition to the Penny for Pasco sales tax is short-sighted and his plan to spend the revenue on government salaries is illegal.
Randall Evans, 48, retired last year after 27-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Investigative Services. He is more moderate than much of the field, but he focused the latter stages of his campaign on candidate residency issues rather than how to improve the quality of life for Pasco County residents.
Joshua Griffin, 28, suggests privatizing as many government services as possible and to allow unbridled growth. He was unaware of the existence of the Urban Land Institute report and called for a task force to study the local economy. His scrapes with the law, and his explanations afterward, indicate a need to gain maturity and to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility.
In the District 3 Republican primary, the Times recommends Kathryn Starkey.
Jack Mariano: District 5, open primary
Two-term Republican incumbent Jack Mariano sometimes takes a twisted route to arrive at correct voting positions such as maintaining the school impact fee and killing a plan to give the sheriff his own taxing unit. It is that inconsistency — favoring an idea publicly on one occasion, but voting against it at another — that has spurred an orchestrated effort among some Republican power brokers to defeat him at the polls.
Granted, we disagree with Mariano often. He is obsessed with eliminating park fees, even though the modest charges are a suitable user fee to help keep afloat the parks and recreation department. And, he can be an obstructionist, evidenced by the parochialism that contributed to the county's inability to partner with the private sector to develop a tourist destination.
But, he shouldn't be punished politically for independent thinking and he isn't afraid to challenge or offend the powers that be. His forceful stand against former Sheriff Bob White's unrealistic and exorbitant budget proposals showed leadership and helped provided political resolve to other board members. Likewise, he and Commissioner Henry Wilson have consistently tired (not always successfully) to maintain the integrity of the new market areas from some property owners seeking modifications to bolster their own bottom lines.
He is opposed by fellow Republican Bill Gunter, 42, a church pastor and chaplain affiliated with the Pasco Sheriff's Office. Gunter is intelligent and demonstrates leadership skills, but, unfortunately, he already panders. He advocates raises for public safety employees with no explanation about how to pay for them. He parrots the familiar, but ambiguous talking points of the building and development community about unfriendly county permitting and too much government regulation. Likewise, he questions some of the commission's key planning accomplishments.
It's problematic. The county doesn't need to return to an era of special interests running roughshod over public interests in the name of renewed economic prosperity.
The Times recommends voters re-elect Jack Mariano as District 5 commissioner.