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Election could usher in voting bloc

When the latest crop of county commissioners took office last year, they were praised for breaking a tradition of cronyism.

"They sure can't call this board good old boys," declared Commissioner Gary Bartell at the time.

But some commission watchers now are predicting that a new coalition could form, depending on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election. Such an alliance could be the dominant force in county government for the next two years.

The theory making the rounds in political circles is that Commissioners Brad Thorpe and Frank Schiraldi are now allied and that if Jim Fowler is elected, the three would become the decisive voting bloc on the five-member board.

The speculation is based in large measure on a past friendship between Fowler and Thorpe and on sightings of Schiraldi and Thorpe meeting socially outside commission meetings. Schiraldi's campaign manager is now Fowler's.

Fowler is running for a seat that opened when Chester White Sr. resigned. Of the four other incumbents, only Bartell faces re-election. The seats carry four-year terms.

The suspected coalition does not extend to Bartell or his opponent, John Russo, who has sharply criticized the current commission.

Schiraldi and Thorpe have heard the speculation but say there's no basis for it. Schiraldi dismisses the whispers as rumor-mongering.

Fowler said he hadn't heard the story, but said it wasn't true.

"They're not dishonorable people," said Patricia Cloward of Inverness, a longtime commission watcher. But she fears "they will bring about a triumvirate on the board" favoring business development.

Cloward is chairwoman of the Citrus County Council, a coalition of community groups, but said she wasn't speaking on behalf of the council.

She supports business growth, but said, "When you give too many incentives to business, the taxpayers could get left holding the bag."

Both Schiraldi and Thorpe were elected two years ago and promised to bring business values to government, and Fowler has picked up campaign contributions from numerous local business leaders.

Thorpe said, "If we had something to hide, we certainly wouldn't be doing it at the Crown (Hotel)," where he and Schiraldi have been seen socializing together.

The two said they have and will continue to vote independently and observe the Sunshine Law.

From their actions to date, it's unclear what the three men might hope to specifically team up on.

Schiraldi and Thorpe joined others on the board in several pro-environmental votes: They opposed mining in the Withlacoochee State Forest; asked the state to buy the 2,650-acre Jordan Ranch in northeast Citrus as a preserve; and voted against the proposed marina on the Cross Florida Barge Canal. All those votes were unanimous.

Thorpe and Schiraldi have been cool to the idea of using county tax money to directly subsidize businesses.

In addition, Fowler has been endorsed by David Walker, a well-known local environmentalist. Walker said Fowler's knowledge of the solid-waste business could help the commission decide whether to continue operating the Lecanto landfill, which occupies part of the state forest. Fowler was president of the Central Florida division of Waste Management, the world's largest waste-disposal firm, from 1986 to 1992.

Thorpe and Fowler said they have been friends 12 years and used to play tennis on Fowler's backyard court. But they stopped two years ago, when Fowler had to devote more time to business interests, and rarely socialize together now.

"We don't have to agree on everything to be friends," Fowler said.

Schiraldi and Fowler said they don't know each other personally but have attended some of the same local political mixers. Thorpe is a Democrat; Fowler and Schiraldi are Republicans.

Thorpe said he has socialized with Schiraldi a few times but can't remember how many. He says they never discussed county business in private. "We're very careful what we say."

Florida's Sunshine Law doesn't bar members of a public board from socializing together. It does forbid them from discussing any matters they might vote on.

Nevertheless, the state attorney general's office has issued advisory opinions discouraging socializing among board members because it creates an appearance of impropriety.

Schiraldi said he recalls just one get-together with Thorpe, the night of Oct. 4, when a Times reporter saw the two with their wives in a dining room at the Crown Hotel. Another Times staffer saw the pair meeting there last year.

Schiraldi said he and Thorpe coincidentally turned up at the hotel Oct. 4 after getting the results of that day's primary election. "The last thing I want to do with my wife there is discuss county business," he said.

He and Thorpe occasionally have lunch at the Crown with friends before commission meetings but don't sit at the same table, Schiraldi said.

No one interviewed for this story said they had seen the pair socializing, only that they've heard of other such get-togethers.

"I guess there's always an appearance of impropriety if you want to say there is," Thorpe said. "I can't worry what the rumors are. I think I've acted ethically as a board member."

If Schiraldi and Thorpe feel in need of a swing vote, they have not demonstrated it publicly.

Regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 election, Schiraldi, Thorpe and incumbent Commissioner Vicki Phillips remain a majority favoring privatizing the county ambulance service, the most controversial issue to come before the board recently.

Nor have Schiraldi and Thorpe been on the losing end of any close votes. Most of the board's votes have been unanimous or 4-1, with almost no acrimony or sharp debate.

Meanwhile, numerous local business leaders have favored Fowler with campaign contributions. Why? They like his managerial experience, said Stan Olsen, developer of the Black Diamond Ranch and a Fowler supporter.

"He's been there. He understands the needs of business. . . . I'm sure he understands the need for a broader tax base," especially in light of recent layoffs by Florida Power, Olsen said.

Fowler favors giving county tax breaks to attract new businesses case by case. His opponent, Lee Alexander, a Democrat, is opposed.

The current commission "is still the best board I've seen since I've been in Citrus County," said Dennis Keene of Inverness, a former member of the county Code Enforcement Board and a frequent audience member at commission meetings. "I wouldn't like to see it regress to the good old days."

Thorpe said, "I think in the old days, there was wheeling and dealing. But that's gone now because we have a state comprehensive plan that controls future growth. Some votes have been pro-environmental, some have been pro-business, and we're in the middle. Maybe that's why we were elected."

There has been a similar shift away from the campaigns of the 1980s, when candidates more clearly aligned themselves with business or environmental causes and treated those goals as mutually exclusive. The debates plunged those commissions into bickering.

"I think we've gone past philosophy, and we're now getting into specific projects and issues," Thorpe said. "We're not into feuding. We try to do our homework."