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4 hopefuls heat up fire district races

Published Oct. 18, 2005

These candidates don't have familiar names, don't spend much, if anything, on their campaigns and don't knock heads along party lines. They are running for seats on the commission that oversees the Palm Harbor Special Fire Control District.

The positions hold little political clout as far as county politics is concerned, but commissioners bear a heavy fiscal responsibility and make decisions that affect the safety of the people living in the fire district.

They work in relative anonymity, because few people attend their meetings. But the job has attracted four candidates for the Nov. 6 election.

In the race for Seat 2, Commissioner Lewis U. Green Jr. faces Jay Campbell Jr., a Clearwater firefighter who lives in Palm Harbor. For Seat 3, Commissioner Leon A. Doyen faces Irene Rausch, a legal guardian who also lives in the district. Commissioners serve four-year terms and the job pays $2,400 per year.

The fire commissioners each represent the entire fire district in Palm Harbor, an unincorporated community of more than 50,000 people that has grown quickly in recent years.

For example, the commission approved a $3.49-million budget for 1990-91, almost six times the district's budget five years ago. The budget included plans for a new fire station in Crystal Beach.

Six years ago, Palm Harbor firefighters responded to 700 calls, Fire Chief Tom Jarrell said. At the current pace, this year's number of emergency calls is expected to exceed 4,000, he said.

"Everything just kind of jumped proportionally," Jarrell said.

Even though big decisions are made at fire commission meetings, few members of the public attend.

"I never could never understand it," said Charlie Jones, 65, a former commissioner who served 16 years on the board. "I guess it's just apathy."

Now that major decisions involving the Crystal Beach fire station are behind the commission, Jones said the board's responsibility is to see that the fire district keeps up to date with firefighting technology and techniques.

"It takes more training now as things become more complex," Jones said. "Firefighting isn't what it used to be."

Green, 66, is running for a second four-year term on the commission. Green, a retired Air Force pilot, said the commission should be a "watchdog" for the taxpayer now that the board has settled on the Crystal Beach station.

Campbell, 39, has been a firefighter in Clearwater 17 years. He said the commission has spent too much money in the past, but said Palm Harbor firefighters should be given pay raises to bring their salaries up to the level of their counterparts in nearby cities. Campbell said Palm Harbor firefighters earn about $5,000 a year less than some counterparts.

Green said Campbell would have a conflict of interest if elected. Campbell, a member of a firefighters' union, would be biased during union negotiations, Green said.

Campbell denies Green's charge.

"They're my tax dollars, too," Campbell said. "I wouldn't be throwing it away just for the benefit of the firefighters."

Rausch, 48, a legal guardian, said she has attended many commission meetings and agrees with Jones' assessment that the public seems to be apathetic toward what happens in the district. She said she would try, if elected, to make the public more aware of how the district serves them.

She said commissioners sometimes are unprepared at meetings and need to do a "little more homework."

Leon Doyen, 73, is retired from the the graphic arts business and is running against Rausch for a third term on the commission. His experience, he said, is what voters should consider.

During a third term, if elected, Doyen said he and the other commissioners would be responsible for seeing that the fire district remains up to date and well equipped.

Campbell and Rausch have been endorsed by the Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Association, the union that represents 41 Palm Harbor firefighters.

Lt. Tim Sweeny, the association's president, said Campbell and Rausch are more favorable toward continuing education and toward public relations than the other two candidates.

Paramedics, for example, must continue their education for recertification, Sweeny said. The firefighters believe that a public relations effort needs to be made to get the community more involved in the fire district, he said.