Local office candidates mix with citizens at forum
By MELODY JAMESON
BALM – From objectionable “golden parachute” employment contracts to potentially reduced school board salaries to another penny sales tax for transportation projects – money was on the minds of about 80 citizens questioning seven of their local office candidates here last week.
The many fiscally-related queries were pressed during the increasingly popular candidates’ forum hosted each election cycle by the Balm Civic Association, an event always sweetened by a large array of homemade desserts no matter how peppery the questioning. The pre-primary election 2010 forum was conducted Wednesday, August 4, at the Balm Civic Center.
Commission candidates included Neil Cosentino, running for the county-wide district 7 seat as an independent, Jim Hosler, another independent seeking the district 5 county-wide chair, Linda Saul-Sena, former Tampa councilwoman also campaigning for the district 5 slot as a Democrat, and Mark Sharpe, a Republican currently serving as district 7 at-large commissioner. Only Sharpe will be on the primary ballot.
School board contenders present were Jennifer Faliero, Kirk Faryniasz and Stacy White, all aiming to nail down the board’s district 4 seat which Faliero currently occupies.
In addition, George Niemann, Dover resident and veteran local government watchdog, joined the panel to field questions related to Amendment Four, the proposal that would give voters the last word on major changes to the county land use code and which will appear on the November general election ballot.
Two other declared commission candidates, incumbent Ken Hagan now seeking to slide over to the district five at-large seat and Josh Burgin, a political newcomer trying to unseat Sharpe, as well as an Amendment Four opponent all were invited to the forum but the three neither responded nor appeared, Marcella O’Steen, association president, said. Under forum ground rules, O’Steen allotted candidates three minutes initially for opening statements of qualifications and one minute for individual replies to questions during the following open Q and A, with 30-second warnings signaled by Kermit O’Steen, holding the time clock.
It was strict adherence to this procedure that produced the humorous highlight of the evening. Sharpe, known for his emphatic belief in and support of the suggested one-penny sales tax increase earmarked for roadway improvements and a light rail system across municipal Tampa, was asked to explain his position. The commissioner, who has debated the sales tax increase issues with opponents for months, stood, microphone in hand, to stress his views about addressing “$60 million worth of failed roadways” and a “bus system that works” around the county along with the future advantages of light rail transportation in the city.
Trying to cover all his bases, Sharpe, a former teacher, exceeded his one-minute limit. After a warning and as the commissioner still continued, O’Steen reached for the mike, prying it from Sharpe’s hands. Grinning and pointing to her playfully, he wisecracked about “payback,” referring to time limits imposed by county commissioners on citizens during meetings. O’Steen smilingly stood her ground. The crowd promptly erupted in loud laughter, vigorously applauding the unfolding byplay.
On the same subject, Hosler, veteran professional planner and demographics analyst as well as strong opponent of bumping up the sales tax, called the entire proposal a “smoke and mirrors” proposition. One reason, he added, is that sketchy information given the public suggests the penny hike will generate a total of $320 million per year. Yet, “the highest amount ever collected has been $200 million,” he noted.
Hosler later also asserted that, from the planning perspective, Tampa was “platted as a city made for cars,” adding “I don’t think rail will ever work here.”
Similarly, Cosentino, retired USAF officer with a strong interest in local aviation programs, stated “Light rail will start hemorrhaging from day one” with new taxes required to keep it “on life support.”
Saul-Sena, long-time Tampa city councilwoman, on the other hand, pointed to long term jobs that would be created in order to build the rail system stretching from the University of South Florida district south through the urban core and west to the WestShore section, plus the permanent positions to be filled for operation of the system.
Another financial issue, the “golden parachute” of unearned salary guaranteed former county administrator Pat Bean in her employment contract, also raised resident ire as they pressed candidates for explanation of “how did she get such a contract?”
While not specifically answering the question, the commission candidates generally agreed. Sharpe called the contract an “abomination,” adding he led the fight to remove Bean based in part on the “arrogance” of herself quietly taking and giving select others salary increases as staff was undergoing wholesale reductions to meet budget shortfalls. Hosler attributed Bean’s long tenure to protections provided by Hagan, his opponent, adding that if elected he would “clean out the weeds.” Cosentino suggested the now-discharged administrator under investigation for possible violations of law should have been released long ago and asked rhetorically “how many other such contracts are out there?”
Differences in candidate outlooks also showed up during the forum. They were asked why Balm, burdened with several borrow pits and life-threatening speeding dump trucks, gets so little traffic control attention from Hillsborough’s Sheriff although a number of deputies live in and around the community, traveling regularly through it in department vehicles. Hosler suggested that law enforcement officers, like military personnel, technically are on duty 24 hours per day, seven days per week. This prompted Sharpe to caution that such a position could motivate the sheriff’s office to seek pay raises. Hosler retorted with a comment about the commission controlling the sheriff’s budget, without explaining the county sheriff is a constitutional officer, elected at large, who does not report to the county commission but rather to the electorate.
Similar monetary questions were put to the school board candidates. Asked why the school system cannot find funding for classroom materials, leaving the burden to be carried by teachers and volunteer groups, Faliero replied the blame actually belongs to state legislators. The legislature has completely eliminated monies for classroom supplies, she said, “100 percent. That’s why we depend on others.”
Faliero pointed in the same direction when the possibility of cutting school board member salaries was raised. The veteran board member said board salaries are set by the legislature and affirmed she is opposed to any such pay cuts. Board member compensation currently is $37,000 per year – among the higher such payment levels – for what is considered a part-time job.
Other would-be school system leaders, however, were not in agreement. With mention that other jurisdictions compensate school board members with as little as $100 per meeting, Faryniasz, a retired military officer who served 31 years in both the U.S. Army and the Air Force, asserted he could do the job without pay. And, White, a pharmacist as well as parent of three school-age children, noted he would raise no objections to pay cuts for board members. Both men said their professional career benefits and schedules give them the flexibility to serve the school system without working any hardships.
Candidates also split over the proposed Amendment Four concepts. Sharpe said he opposes the idea of putting final land use plan measures on a general election ballot because he believes the procedure will discourage new business settling in the county. Saul-Sena indicated she is in the same camp, but for a different reason. She expressed concern that a land use change affecting and important only to South Hillsborough, for example, could be put to a vote involving disinterested communities in the north county. “We need competent county commissioners to make the right decisions the first time around,” she said.
As Niemann emphasized that Amendment Four was designed to prevent the very situation concerning Saul-Sena, Cosentino noted he supports the proposal because “people should be able to control their own communities.” And Hosler, after listening to his fellow candidates discuss the matter, said he’d “just made up my mind” in favor of the amendment.
The primary election is set for Tuesday, August 24, in precincts across the county. Early voting began this week and continues for South County voters at the Riverview community and SouthShore Regional libraries through August 21. Absentee ballots still can be obtained by contacting the county supervisor of elections office.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson