NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County voters are filling two seats on the County Commission this election. In each case, they will be choosing between veteran commissioners seeking another four-year term and political newcomers who advocate new ways to address the county’s future challenges.
For the challengers, the arguments have centered on the need to have a commission that listens better and welcomes more input from all of its constituents, curbing the rapid growth swallowing the county’s remaining green areas, and addressing difficult challenges such as poverty and homelessness.
The incumbents are talking about their pride in the progress made as Pasco continues to grow both residential and commercial areas, job creation, wise spending decisions and how their experience benefits the county and its citizens.
The District 3 seat is currently held by Kathryn Starkey, 63. The district includes southwest and central Pasco County and Starkey, a Republican, is seeking her third term. She previously served as a member of the Pasco County School Board. A California native who came to Florida in 1973, she attended Florida State University.
Her opponent is Democrat Jessica Stempien, 40. A Pasco native, she is the water policy coordinator for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Stempien, who has a bachelors degree in environmental science, was inspired to run after working on flooding issues in her community.
At a recent political forum sponsored by the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce and the West Pasco Board of Realtors, Stempien said she is eager to make storm water issues a priority, and she wants to see growth management preserve Pasco’s remaining natural areas. Her platform also includes updating the county’s comprehensive plan for growth and improving its ordinance to better protect wildlife corridors.
While she supports continuing to promote the Penny for Pasco initiative, Stempien said she would like to see more money dedicated to protecting the county’s environment. She suggested that one way to help both the economy and the environment would be to dedicate rural land in east Pasco to a horse park to draw people and events to the area.
Stempien also wants to see more educational opportunities to teach citizens how to interact with their government and more chances for them to do so through citizen advisory committees.
Starkey said the county already provides such education for citizens through its citizens academy. She said she also supports continuation of the Penny for Pasco but defends the current mix of projects which are funded through that revenue source. Starkey said that environmentally sensitive lands preservation, transportation projects and economic development are each important areas for future Pasco County spending.
The county, Starkey said, is already acquiring and setting aside green areas for the community and offering rural designations and wildlife corridor protections. But Florida is a growing state, so Pasco has had to focus on providing opportunities for both residential and business expansion. “We’re growing in a good way,” Starkey said.
Starkey pointed to her work in various community issues before her first election and how her involvement with both state and federal agencies is a plus for Pasco County. “Now we have a voice,” Starkey said.
The District 5 seat is currently held by Jack Mariano, 60, who has been a commissioner since 2004. Mariano is a Massachusetts native who came to Florida in 1991. He is in insurance sales and has a bachelors degree in economics.
Mariano has two opponents in the general election: Brandi Geoit, a Democrat, and Victor Rodriguez, who has no party affiliation.
Geoit, 44, is a native of Michigan who came to Pasco County 11 years ago. She has worked as a social worker and ran unsuccessfully for the District 4 commission seat two years ago. She has a bachelors degree in family studies.
Rodriguez is a 33-year-old Brooklyn native who came to Florida 29 years ago. He is a regional operations director for a heating and air conditioning company and studied criminal justice for several semesters.
Geoit has been critical of Mariano’s opposition to the mask mandate in Pasco County. She wants commissioners to listen to experts, such as the Florida Department of Health, and “not Facebook memes” for information about protecting the community from the coronavirus.
As a social worker who has worked with Pasco residents challenged by poverty, illness, drug addiction, unemployment, mental health issues and homelessness, Geoit has targeted those as areas Pasco commissioners should be making among their highest priorities. She also agrees that flooding and storm water issues have vexed many areas of the county and need to be addressed more aggressively.
“Citizens need to know that county commissioners actually care,” Geoit said during the political forum. She added that traffic is an issue Pasco needs to better address, but she does not agree with the Ridge Road Extension, which routes through a nature preserve.
Mariano backs the need for the Ridge Road Extension, explaining that new north-to-south routes are badly needed in Pasco County and that the design of the road has limited environmental impact. He also defends the need to continue to focus on economic development and is particularly proud of the work the commission has done to create new, well-paying jobs as industries have picked Pasco County to be their home.
Voter support for the most recent sales tax renewal, which includes economic development, shows that citizens understand how important that is, Mariano said, and was also acknowledgment that they trust how the commission has spent their share.
Pasco County has been addressing neighborhood flooding issues as well as homelessness, which recently got a big boost from the commission through federal coronavirus aid monies, Mariano said. He also continues to push for Pasco to end its mask order, saying instead that the county should strongly recommend but not require citizens to wear masks.
Rodriquez wants Pasco to better address poverty. He said the commission has been focused on the high-end growth along the State Road 54 corridor while not looking hard enough at the needs of west Pasco, which has seen decline. He supports job growth but wants the jobs to provide a living wage since so many are struggling. He also supports better programs to address related issues, especially the homeless.
Transparency by the government is another plank in his platform. Recently, Rodriguez made a Facebook video showing beachgoers at SunWest Park. While there were two small signs on the beach announcing that the waters were not safe for swimming due to bacteria, the notices were not seen by many who were there, and not until they paid to get into the beach.
Rodriguez also wants to see more transparency from the county on where it spends its money. He said he believes the county is not making full use of state programs that could also provide funding, taking some of the burden off Pasco taxpayers.
County commissioners must live in the district they represent but are elected countywide. Their annual salary is $94,180.
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