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Aide in race has an act to balance

When a county planner ran against Hillsborough Commissioner Chris Hart three years ago, Hart raised questions about whether it was appropriate for the planner to stay in her job.

Though it wasn't required, the county employee, Kim Wall, decided to take three months of unpaid leave to avoid any conflict between her work and campaign duties.

Now one of Hart's aides is running for a commission seat. But Hart sees no problem. He said he never sought Wall's resignation three years ago and was merely posing a question.

Will Craig, Hart's aide, initially said he would quit two to three weeks after declaring his candidacy for the District 2 seat, which represents northern Hillsborough County.

That was nine weeks ago.

Craig said he has been forced to stay on because of the unexpected departure of the other aide in Hart's office. He said he would prefer to quit so he could concentrate on his campaign.

"I've got two responsibilities that I give equal weight to. One is my responsibility to Chris, who's got a responsibility to the people," Craig said. "And obviously I've got a personal interest in getting elected. I'm trying to balance that out in how those two issues are resolved."

Craig has secured opinions from the county attorney's office and the Florida Commission on Ethics, both of which said he does not have to quit his county job to run. Right now, he said he plans to stay on indefinitely.

Hart said Craig will leave during qualifying week in July, when prospective office holders formally become candidates.

Wall didn't have to take a hiatus from her county job, either. But she said she agreed to do so after talking it over with Hillsborough County City Planning Commission executive director Bob Hunter.

A policy requires employees who report to the county administrator to quit or take leave when they formally qualify in July. Wall's office doesn't fall under the policy. Neither does Craig's job.

But Wall agreed she should follow its spirit and feels Craig should do the same, particularly because his boss raised the issue about her.

"If you're working for a public agency and running for office, I think it just makes for a cleaner campaign," Wall said. "There's no suspicion you're getting help from inside sources."

Commissioners indirectly took up the issue of whether he should stay on the job during a meeting three weeks ago. There, one of Craig's Republican opponents, Denise Lasher, noted that she was told she may have to resign from two volunteer advisory boards.

Apparently, another policy attempts to prevent candidates from using certain advisory appointments to promote their campaign platforms. Lasher noted the seeming hypocrisy.

In his day job, Craig does research for Hart on issues and fields calls and complaints from the public. He deals with many of the people seeking commission votes.

"I don't think it's fair that volunteers have more stringent requirements then employees do," Lasher said.

Hart agrees there needs to be a consistent policy. He thinks all county employees and members of advisory panels should have to resign or take a leave of absence after the July qualifying week.

He says that's not inconsistent with what happened to Wall. That's because Wall didn't announce her candidacy until qualifying week. Craig has declared his candidacy by filing to set up a campaign office, which allows him to raise money and promote himself.

Besides, Hart said, if anyone gains by holding a county job, it is incumbent commissioners who are best positioned to do favors to gain campaign support. Punishing others who declare their candidacy by making them quit their jobs "sounds like the incumbency full protection act to me," Hart said.

Democrat Jan Platt, the only commissioner whose seat is not up for election this year, said people at least have the opportunity to examine the record of incumbents. They also can inspect disclosure forms to see who is contributing to that person's campaign and make judgments about whether they're guided by principle or campaign dollars.

People have little way of examining whether Craig is using his office for political gain or whether he is doing campaign work on the county dime. She thinks Craig, and any other county employee who is campaigning for office, should resign or take an unpaid leave once they are able to raise money for that campaign.

"He is raising money while he is a county employee and he's in a very sensitive position as a county employee," Platt said. "He deals with constituents on a daily basis. It may not be illegal for him to remain, but it just gives an appearance that won't help him in this election."

_ Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or variansptimes.com.

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