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  1. Florida Politics

White House hosts Florida county commissioners for first-of-its-kind conference

Pinellas Commissioner Charlie Justice
Pinellas Commissioner Charlie Justice
Published Aug. 4, 2017

Some county leaders across Florida thought the White House invitation was a hoax.

The Florida Association of Counties eventually had to send an email confirming the invitation to Washington sent to every county commissioner in the Sunshine State was, indeed, legitimate.

Billy Kirkland, the White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, said the confusion demonstrated the exact reason his office organized this first-of-its-kind conference — to fill the void between counties and the White House. The White House invited every county commissioner in the state.

"We want them to know they have an ally here in the White House," Kirkland said.

That progress started last week at the first-ever Florida County Commissioners Conference at the White House. More than 125 commissioners representing about 80 percent of the Sunshine State's counties attended the seven-hour marathon session, where they met senior-level officials from more than a dozen executive-branch agencies.

Four commissioners from Tampa Bay attended — Janet Long and Charlie Justice from Pinellas County and Kathryn Starkey and Jack Mariano from Pasco County.

The conferences are a new development in localism, governance experts said. Several commissioners said local members of Congress were their only previous connections to Washington.

Kirkland said that was the main point: to strengthen relationships between the executive branch and counties.

While Kirkland focused on the governance benefits, the conferences can also be viewed politically. The first states chosen to have such a conference — Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan — were all swing states in the 2016 presidential election that tilted to Trump.

"These are clearly states that were critical to the president's victory," said Elaine Karmack, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former White House official for President Bill Clinton, "and they are trying to make sure they develop important relationships ... not just for 2020 but for the midterm elections as well."

Florida commissioners heard 10- to 15-minute presentations from top officials at more than a dozen agencies.

Hillsborough County sent two staff members. Taxpayers footed the travel bills, totaling roughly $800 for Pinellas, $1,000 for Hillsborough and $2,000 for Pasco.

Starkey, a Republican, said it opened up a whole new set of federal contacts that seemed to want to help. She said she was worried going in it would be overtly political.

"It was absolutely not like that," she said.

Justice said it was a first step in building the relationship with the executive branch, calling the direct contact "eye-opening."

"We have a responsibility to work with the people we elect," the Pinellas Democrat said.

Long wished the meeting had more specific substance. Long, a Democrat, was able to make the case with federal officials for relocating a NOAA center to St. Petersburg.

Mariano called the meeting "extremely encouraging." Mariano, a Republican, said he sees the Trump administration as fulfilling its promise to "shake things up" and listen to the people — not Washington insiders.

Contact Andrew Dunn at adunn@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewE_Dunn.