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  1. Florida Politics

In Pinellas commission race, $16.5 million judgement against county becomes key issue

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, the Democratic incumbent, speaks at a candidate debate hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Thursday. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, the Democratic incumbent, speaks at a candidate debate hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Thursday. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Oct. 14, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice's opponent has made a $16.5 million court judgment against the county one of his main attacks against the incumbent.

Mike Mikurak, a retired business executive, has raised the issue in attacks ads and on the campaign trail. And it came up again at Thursday's candidate debate, hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

In June, a circuit judge ruled that in 2013 the Pinellas County Commission was wrong to reject a plan by West Palm Beach developer Richman Group of Florida to build a 246-unit, three-story luxury apartment complex in Safety Harbor. The judge awarded damages and interest to the developer.

A member of the audience asked both men if residents deserve an apology.

"I'm not going to apologize for that," Justice said, noting the commission has the power to veto land uses. "It will be overturned."

Mikurak disagreed: "It was a County Commission that overstepped its bounds."

Then commissioner Janet Long, who attended the debate at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater, went up to the stage, took the microphone and weighed in herself: "It's in litigation. We're not going to litigate it here."

Interest accrues daily, so taxpayers could be on the hook for much more if the county loses its appeal.

There were no fireworks as the two candidates in the race for the Pinellas County Commission District 3 seat faced each other. But each managed to throw jabs at each other.

One questioner asked about the role of a county commissioner.

"I don't look it as a job," Mikurak, a Republican, said. "It's a service back to the community."

Justice, a Democrat, disagreed. All seven county commissioners, he said, consider their positions a full-time job: "It's not just a part-time charity gig."

The theme taking shape in the District 3 race is that of a politician battling a newcomer.

Mikurak, 62, a retired executive who moved here 16 years ago, once worked as a consultant in business strategy and supply chain management. He has served as a governor's appointee to the Juvenile Welfare Board and a county appointee to CareerSource Pinellas Executive Committee. He has also served on the boards of BayCare Health Systems, Palms of Pasadena Hospital Board of Trustees and St. Anthony's Hospital.

"As a businessman," Mikurak said. "I learned how to sign the front of a check, not the back of a check."

After 10 years in the Florida Legislature, Justice, 48, ran for County Commission in 2012 out of concerns that the board was headed down an ideological path, not a pragmatic one. The year before, the commission voted to stop putting fluoride in its drinking water, making Pinellas the subject of national ridicule. Justice campaigned on a pledge to vote to restore fluoridation, which the commission did after he won office.

He reiterated that the commissioners work well together and have fostered better relationships with leaders across the county.

"I respect the people who put in a day's work and sign the back of a check," told the club.

So far, the race has drawn more than $238,000 in campaign donations. Mikurak has collected $145,000. The contest is on its way to becoming the costliest race for any county officeholder this year.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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