Charlie Justice Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Citing ‘assault on home rule,’ Kathleen Peters to run for Pinellas County Commission

Citing Tallahassee’s battle against home rule, Treasure Island Republican Kathleen Peters has decided against a fourth term in the Florida House, opting instead to seek the District 6 seat on the Pinellas County Commission.

In March, District 6 Commissioner John Morroni announced he will retire after his term expires in 2018.

“After the legislature launched an all-out assault on local government and home rule this year,” Peters said in a statement. “I found myself reflecting on my community priorities and where I feel I can have the greatest impact.”

“After long consideration, I have decided to change course and run for County Commission, District 6.”

A former mayor, Peters was initially elected to House District 69 in 2012, representing Gulfport, South Pasadena, and several South Pinellas County beaches. She had campaigned on reforms to the Florida mental health system and repairs and improvements to Pinellas County’s failing sewer system.

“I started my public service in local government serving as a city commissioner then mayor of South Pasadena,” Peters said. “During my time as mayor, the city emerged strong and debt free as we navigated the throes of a recession. I believe I will bring very diverse experience from both local and state governments that will make me a strong asset to the commission.”

Peters said her priority as a county commissioner will be “to strengthen our infrastructure to ensure the county can withstand any storm mother nature throws at us without doing any further damage to the environment.”

“This will require strengthening and nourishing our beaches to protect homes, roads and infrastructure, as well as ensuring the integrity of sewer systems throughout the county,” she added.

In addition, Peters vows to continue working to ensure “Pinellas County has a coordinated system of care to address the mental health and addiction crisis.”

Also eyeing the same Commission job is term-limited Republican state Rep. Larry Ahern.

Ahern, from Seminole, has represented House District 66 since 2010. In April, he filed paperwork for the District 6 seat.

With Peters’ entry in the race, both her and Ahern are looking to take similar paths to the Commission, each serving in the Florida House before moving on to a spot on the Commission. Morroni, like Peters, is a Treasure Island resident who also served two terms in the House (1992 to 2000). First elected to the County Commission in 2000, Morroni served as chair in 2005, 2012 and 2015.

In addition, Democratic Commission members Janet Long and Charlie Justice previously served in the state House.

An ally of influential Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, Peters filed 18 projects during the 2017 Session, with only four making it out of committee. Among her successes were a Pinellas Park pond project, funding for the Florida Holocaust Museum, and a program for helping residents with disabilities get employment in the hotel and motel industry.

Peters and Latvala, the Senate Appropriations chair, also co-sponsored legislation seeking to prevent further erosion of state’s beaches. Both lawmakers represent a large portion of Pinellas County beaches.

All of Peters’ other bills stalled in the House, possibly due to her support for Enterprise Florida, a program favored by Gov. Rick Scott that had been targeted for elimination by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Latvala also supported Enterprise Florida as of late, even though he seemed to be against business incentive programs as far back as 2015.

In contrast, Ahern voted for severe cuts to Enterprise Florida, earning Scott’s strong disapproval.

Let’s Get to Work, the political committee supporting Scott, conducted a round of robocalls in March hitting Ahern and other Republicans who voted for HB 7005, the bill to eliminate Enterprise Florida and a slew of other economic incentive programs.

‘Property assessed’ financing for solar panels reveal serious consequences for Pinellas Realtors, lenders

As solar energy expands as Florida’s next big growth industry, with it comes a host of unforeseen consequences.

While promises of reduced energy costs for consumers and the lure of “no credit needed,” county-approved loans are indeed attractive, easy financing and lower energy costs could be masking other, potentially devastating, economic problems.

A letter last year from the Pinellas Realtors Organization, standing for over 7,000 real estate professionals countywide, to County Commissioner Charlie Justice cautions against one such situation where the lure of cheap solar hides something much deeper, and darker.

In 2016, The City of St. Petersburg considered using “property assessed clean energy” (PACE) financing for solar energy-related improvements to homes and businesses throughout the region. PACE, which The Wall Street Journal calls one of the “fastest-growing types of financing in the U.S.,” gives property owners special financing agreements with local municipalities, which agree to repay the costs of green energy improvements — such as solar panels — through long-term assessments on property tax bills. Pasco County already has PACE.

The issue was again brought up at a recent Pinellas Board of County Commissioners meeting last week, which was then pushed to a future workshop.

While the intent of the PACE initiatives was to offer no personal liability for the property owner, PACE liens — like property taxes — take precedence over mortgages, said a joint letter from Mindy Rovillo, Pinellas Realtors 2016 chair, and David Bennett, the group’s president and chief executive officer.

“This makes the bonds easier for municipalities to sell,” Rovillo and Bennett write, “but if a home is foreclosed on then liens are paid before the mortgage lender can recoup any money.”

In 2010, Florida lawmakers approved legislation enabling PACE initiatives, which quickly became a boon to finance companies. Since then, the state has developed five active PACE programs, which offer both commercial and residential financing. Homeowners would see special property assessments on tax rolls, revenue which would pay back the bonds.

Realtors are warning — as they have since 2012 — that if the average home sells every five years — and the typical PACE loan is for 20 years — real estate agents will be on the hook to explain this special tax assessment to potential homebuyers.

“Once the prospective buyer learns about this new cost to purchasing the home, this information may cause delays in the completion of the transaction or even a cancellation,” the letter said.

In addition, refinancing a property under a PACE lien could be “problematic.”

“Homeowners who participate in the PACE program with the goal of reducing their monthly expenses through lower energy bills could find themselves unable to take advantage of the significant savings that even a single percentage drop in interest rates can bring with it,” Rovillo and Bennett wrote.

Realtors’ fears about the hidden financial consequences PACE initiatives for solar upgrades are just another of the many red flags raised in the push to expand Florida’s solar industry.

Several news reports exposed the range of questionable sales practices used by solar companies to get consumers to install panels on their homes. For example, SolarCity, one of the industry’s largest players, offers 20-year leases to finance solar panel installations.

However, problems began when the billion-dollar corporation began lowering the requirements by using subpar credit scores to target homeowners looking to save on electric costs by financing solar panels. This practice has led a wave of foreclosures — some estimates put the number in the thousands — of homes under lien for unpaid solar panels. The practice has thrown chaos into mortgage companies trying to sort out who exactly owns the panels.

In addition, Sun Sentinel reporter Ron Hurtibise recently revealed a burgeoning industry in South Florida of fly-by-night companies offering to finance major improvements — such as solar panels — for up to 20 years with no money down and no credit checks. Promises of rebates that would “pay for themselves” came up against a harsh reality when homeowners learn they are ineligible for such reimbursements.

PACE loans face a similar reality, Realtors say.

“Homeowners who participate in the PACE program with the goal of reducing their monthly expenses through lower energy bills could find themselves unable to take advantage of the significant savings that even a single percentage drop in interest rates can bring with it.”

While favoring structural improvements such as hurricane strengthening, Realtors believe PACE loans prove to have an adverse effect on mortgage availability, particularly since the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) does not allow Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal Home Loan Banks to purchase mortgages under PACE liens.

“Approximately 75 percent of residential properties utilize Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Federal Home Loan Banks to finance residential mortgages either directly or indirectly. In a community that has a high number of senior citizens, first-time homebuyers, veterans, and those in search of workforce housing,” Rovillo and Bennett write. “It does not, in our eyes, seem prudent to engage in a program that could deny 75 percent of the financing market to a property.

Concerns over the PACE program have led the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) to lobby the Donald Trump administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other federal agencies to restrict these residential energy-efficiency loans, comparing them to the subprime mortgages which lack federal consumer protections against predatory lending.

According to the MBA website, the group “believes that energy-efficient home improvements can be beneficial for homeowners; however, MBA has significant concerns with the PACE program construct and the risk it poses to traditional lien priority.”

David Jolly presents flag at Ray Neri’s memorial service

Former U.S. Rep. David Jolly on Wednesday presented an American flag to Laura Neri, the widow of community activist Ray Neri, who died Jan. 3.

The flag was one that U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis had had flown over the Capitol especially for Mrs. Neri.

“Ray Neri was a special person,” Jolly said. “Ray touched peoples’ lives.”

Jolly was only one of many of Pinellas’ political leaders who came to Neri’s memorial service. Others included Pinellas County commissioners  Pat Gerard, Karen Seel, Ken Welch, Dave Eggers and Charlie Justice. Former state Rep. Jim Frishe also attended. Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former county Commissioner Neil Brickfield spoke during the ceremony.

“There will never be another Ray Neri, but we can continue what he started,” Gualtieri said.

Although most had helped Neri with projects to benefit the unincorporated Lealman area, Jolly had helped him in another way.

Neri was diagnosed with a heart ailment that the Veterans Administration could not treat. Neri appealed to Jolly, who pushed the VA into giving him permission to go elsewhere for help. A Tampa surgeon was successful in saving Neri.

Neri died Jan. 3 at Northside Hospital where he was taken after falling at home.

Neri had served on boards of the Lealman Community Association, which he headed for several years; the Juvenile Welfare Board; the Sheriff’s Police Athletic League; Keep Pinellas Beautiful; the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club; and the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council.

‘Mr. Lealman’ Ray Neri dies

Ray Neri, the man who put the unincorporated Lealman area on the map, died Tuesday at Northside Hospital.

Neri was taken to Northside on Monday. He had fallen earlier in the day.

Neri was a well-known community activist whose persistent lobbying brought attention to the problems in his community. With the light he shone on Lealman came help. His activism resulted in, among other things, a renovated park, a new park, and Pinellas County’s first community redevelopment area designed to solve the problems of poverty that permeates the community.

Lealman is located between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg on the north and south and between I-275 and Park Street on the east and west. Kenneth City divides the area into two. Most of Neri’s activism centered on the portion of the Lealman area to the east of Kenneth City.

“He’s Mr. Lealman to me,” Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala said Tuesday. “Who in the world is going to keep the focus on that community?”

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said, “Ray was a character who could drive you nuts but you never minded. He was so persistent in his efforts to make things better for children, specifically the children in Lealman, that you always came away admiring the way he kept pushing us forward.

“He was one of those folks that you just assumed would always be there. Hard to fathom things without his input.”

Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long said, “Such a tragedy for our county and the Lealman area. … There’s a lot of things that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him.”

Neri served on the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council, the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area Citizen Advisory Board, the Police Athletic League and was a member and former head of the Lealman Community Association.

Details about arrangements were not available late Tuesday.

Pinellas Legislative Delegation to consider changes to construction licensing board

Responding to a request from Charlie Justice, the Pinellas Legislative Delegation will consider changing the way members of the Construction Licensing Board are chosen.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, the delegation chair, called on state Rep. Larry Ahern to come up with a plan by the delegation’s Jan. 31 meeting. State Sen. Jeff Brandes said he wanted Ahern to consider dissolving the board so it would come under control of the Pinellas County Commission.

The licensing board, created in 1973, regulates some construction and home improvement contractors practicing in Pinellas County. It also provides countywide certification and registration of contractors.

It has come under fire in recent weeks because of the way the board members are chosen. Certain organizations and others, named in the statute, suggest members and the chair — currently Justice — of the Pinellas County Commission is responsible for appointing them.

Justice explained the problems in a Nov. 16 letter to Latvala and the delegation:

“When the request to appoint various positions of the PCCLB came before me this fall, I noticed some discrepancies as to the number of appointees provided by the various appointing organizations … In addition, some of the appointing organizations no longer exist or have been adopted under the umbrella of another, similar organization.”

Justice concluded, “I would ask that the Pinellas Legislative Delegation review the laws that pertain to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board and consider amending them to reflect the makeup of the appointing organizations as well as the process by which the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners chair would go about appointing/reappointing board members to the PCCLB.”

Janet Long elected chair of Pinellas County Commission

The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners elected a new chair and vice chair for 2017 on Tuesday.

Janet Long was elected chair. Ken Welch will serve as vice chair. Both choices received a unanimous vote from the seven-member commission.

The two will serve for a year. Their terms begin in January.

Long is succeeding Commissioner Charlie Justice who served as chair for 2016. Welch will succeed Long, who is the current vice chair.

“I’m truly honored and humbled to serve on this Board of County Commissioners,” Long said. “I look forward to finding more ways to make life better for the citizens of Pinellas County in 2017. These are exciting times.”

Long, Welch and Justice, Democrats who were reelected to the commission, were also sworn in for their new terms. Republican Karen Seel, who was also reelected, was not present for the ceremony.

Long, who represents District 1, a countywide seat, was first elected to the commission in 2012. Before that, she served in the state House of Representatives from 2006 to 2012. She served on the Seminole City Council from 2002 to 2006 and as a deputy commissioner for the Florida Department of Insurance from 1986 to 1998.

Welch, who represents District 7 which covers St. Petersburg and the unincorporated Lealman area, was first elected to the County Commission in 2000. He was reelected in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Before serving on the commission, Welch spent 14 years in accounting, information technology, and financial systems administration with Florida Power Corp. (now Duke Energy), and more than 20 years of entrepreneurial experience as technology manager for Welch Accounting & Tax Services, a family-owned business.

Justice represents District 3, a countywide seat. He was first elected to the commission in 2012. Seel represents District 5, a north county seat. She was served on the commission since 1999.

Down-ballot races throughout Florida provided some interesting results as well

With so many high-profile races going on in Florida, other contests were on the ballot, but under the radar. Florida Politics pointed out 10 of those down-ballot races to watch with backgrounds on each.

While not as momentous as Donald Trump winning Florida, these races were interesting in their own right.

Miami-Dade County Mayor

Republican Mayor Carlos Gimenez went from a confident incumbent to someone battling to keep his job. He and many others thought he could win another term on Aug. 30.

In the end, he was forced into a runoff with Raquel Regalado. After a judge threw out a challenge to Gimenez’s place on the ballot, the race was on.

On Tuesday night, he earned a clear victory over Regalado, garnering 55 percent of the vote. Regalado earned 44 percent. The margin of victory was nearly 100,000 votes.

Kissimmee Mayor

Jose Alvarez and Art Otero survived a highly contentious primary. These two sitting county commissioners squared off on Tuesday.

When the votes were counted, Alvarez rolled to a fairly easy victory. With 11 of 12 precincts counted, he had an insurmountable 63 to 37 percent lead.

Otero was a solid candidate, but helping Alvarez was the endorsement of the two labor unions representing the region’s theme park and hospitality workers.

St. Cloud Mayor

This race pitted a pastor against the community’s deputy mayor. Pastor James Nathan Blackwell wound up defeating Jeff Rinehart in a reasonably close race.

Blackwell earned 56 percent of the vote, but his election may have been in doubt earlier when he got into some trouble for talking politics from the pulpit.

In the end, he survived the legal challenge as well as the challenge from Rinehart.

Orange County Commission

The Orange County Commission District 5 race was an intense battle between the incumbent Ted Edwards and Emily Bonilla. The race was dominated by an issue involving projects on Lake Pickett.

When the votes were counted, Bonilla, an environmental activist, upset Edwards and won the seat. Her margin of victory was more than 11,000 votes out of more than 78,000 cast, translating to a 57 to 43 percent victory.

Tampa City Council

The Tampa City Council District 7 race was a free-for-all involving six candidates. This made it unlikely any candidate would earn a majority, which is precisely what happened.

Jim Davison advanced to a runoff with Luis Viera. Davison earned 30 percent of the vote while Viera came in with 22 percent.

Davison was put in the hot seat when he received a $1,000 contribution from the local Republican Party, which is forbidden for municipal candidates. He returned the contribution.

Orlando GudesAvis Simone HarrisonGene Siudut, and Cyril Spiro divided the remaining votes.

Pinellas County Commission

Charlie Justice was looking to keep his District 3 seat on the Pinellas County Commission. He faced a strong challenge from Republican retired businessman Mike Mikurak.

Mikurak hammered Justice on his positions on zoning and environmental issues. He nearly pulled off the upset.

When the votes were counted, Justice had a narrow 52-48 percent victory. His victory allows the Democratic Party to keep a 4-3 majority on the commission.

Leon County Superintendent of Schools

Democratic incumbent Jackie Pons was challenged by former friend Rocky Hanna in a bitter race for Leon County Superintendent of Schools. Hanna, a former member of Pons’s administration, ran against him as a no party affiliate.

A controversial television ad against Hanna backfired against Pons, prompting some prominent supporters to abandon him. Hanna built on his record generated during his successful tenure as principal at Tallahassee’s Leon High School.

When the votes were counted, Hanna rolled to a convincing victory over Pons and two other candidates. Hanna earned 54 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Pons. Patricia Sunday and Forrest Van Camp split the remaining 10 percent.

Leon County Sheriff

This race involved four candidates, three of which switched party affiliations during the campaign. Incumbent Mike Wood, running as an NPA, was challenged by former Tallahassee police chief Walt McNeil, a Democrat, as well as Republican Charlie Strickland and NPA Tommy Mills.

McNeil described the incumbent Wood as “Rick Scott’s sheriff.” Wood was appointed by the governor following the death of longtime Sheriff Larry Campbell.

McNeil won the race by earning 46 percent of the vote, while Strickland and Wood gained 25 and 24 percent, respectively.

Jacksonville slots referendum

Supporters of CR 1, which would allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities, were placing their bets on the ability of increased gambling to increase jobs.

Apparently, that argument won the day because 54 percent of Duval County voters voted to approve the measure.

One hurdle remains. The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that would decide whether a countywide vote for slots is constitutional.

Monroe County Zika Initiative

The fight against Zika was put before Monroe County voters on Tuesday. Residents were called on to weigh in on deploying genetically modified insects.

The measure was a non-binding poll and not a mandate. When the votes were counted, 57 percent voted in favor of the idea.

While not binding, three of the mosquito control board members said before the election they would take the public’s view into account before moving forward.

Charlie Justice wins second term on Pinellas County Commission

Democrat Charlie Justice faced down a challenge from first-time candidate Mike Mikurak to win a second term on the Pinellas County Commission.

Justice took the lead early in the evening with about 53. 5 percent of the vote and never looked back.

Voters were treated to two distinctly different styles in the race for the District 3 seat, which was voted on countywide.

Republican Mikurak, who was making his first run for public office, was on the attack early on calling Justice a “career politician” for having served in both the state House and Senate before running for the County Commission. Mikurak also criticized the county as lacking leadership. In turn, Mikurak, a retired businessman, argued the county needed to be run more like a business.

Justice, on the other hand, took a softer approach, talking about his love for the county and his desire to see Pinellas as a place where his daughters would want to live. He also ran on his record, saying the county had come a long way since he first took office in 2012 when there was infighting on the commission and between the county and cities, fire districts, fire chiefs, and other county commissions. Collaboration, Justice said, was the way to get things done for the future.

In other county races, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri won another term. Gualtieri, a Republican, clobbered both James McLynas, who ran without a party affiliation, and write-in candidate Greg Pound.

Republican Mike Twitty also became property appraiser when he took about 96.7 percent of the vote against write-in candidates.

Mike Mikurak’s donations to his campaign fatten his fundraising balance

Mike Mikurak’s fundraising total far outweighs the amount raised by incumbent Charlie Justice.

The two are battling it out for the District 3 seat on the Pinellas County Commission. The District 3 seat is at large and voted on countywide.

Mikurak, a retired businessman, has deposited a total of $156,352 in his campaign account; Justice, $105,928.

But a sizable portion of Mikurak’s total came out of his own pocket. As of mid-October, Mikurak had given about $42,700 in cash and in-kind donations to his campaign.

That trend has continued as the campaign has wound down to its final days. During the period from Oct. 15 through Oct. 21, for example, Mikurak put $8,000 of his own funds into the race. From Oct. 22 through Nov. 3, he put in another $2,160 in-kind towards advertising.

Justice has benefited from union money in the closing days of the race.

Union pac donors include the Millwrights and Machinery Local 1000 ($1,000), Ironworkers ($500), Local Union 915 ($500), WCFFL ($250), and the Florida Fire Pac ($250).

The battle between Mikurak and Justice has been nasty at times.

Mikurak, a Republican, has attacked Justice, a Democrat, as being a career politician. (Justice served in both the State House and Senate before being elected to the county commission). He has also called Justice arrogant and accused him of wasting taxpayers’ money.

Mikurak says he has also brought employment to 200 Pinellas residents and that more of the same is needed. Mikurak says a businessman is necessary on the commission.

Justice has countered with a lower-key campaign that focuses on the changes that, he said, have been made since his election to the county commission four years ago. Among them, a calming of the disputes among commissioners themselves and between the county and cities, fire districts, fire chiefs, and other county commissions.

Justice says the county needs more collaboration and willingness to cooperate with other governments to accomplish things.

The election is Tuesday.

More than just the presidency: 10 down ballot races to watch on Election Day

Presidential races get all the attention, but it’s the folks down ballot that make the real decisions.

In the Sunshine State, there’s no shortage of high intensity — and sometimes high drama — battles for office.

And we aren’t talking about the races for state House and Senate. There have been allegations of election fraud in a mayor’s race, dirty tricks in a superintendent battle, and fights over genetically modified mosquitoes.

Here are 10 down ballot races and referendums we think you should be paying attention when the polls close on Tuesday

Miami-Dade County Mayoral

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez thought he had it in the bag.

Going into the Aug. 30 primary, Gimenez was believed to have a leg up on his competitors. Internal polls showed him ahead of the Raquel Regalado and five other competitors, enough to avoid a run-off.

Then the results came in: Gimenez got 48 percent of the vote; Regalado came in with 32 percent. That wasn’t enough to secure the win, and set the mayoral hopefuls up for a rumble in November.

And what a fight it has been. Regalado filed a lawsuit to disqualify Gimenez because a technicality. The lawsuit, according to WPLG in Miami, claimed the Miami-Dade election office received a qualifying check, which was rejected by the bank.

A Miami-Dade County dismissed the suit during a hearing last week.

The lawsuit wasn’t the only thing hanging over the election. In October, a 74-year-old woman was charged with two felony counts of marking another person’s ballot. The Miami Herald reported the woman’s coworkers caught her illegally marking ballots for Regalado.

Regalado told the Miami Herald that she didn’t know the person and it had “nothing to do with” her.

An October poll, according to the Miami Herald, showed Gimenez beating Regalado by 22 percentage points.

Kissimmee Mayoral

A bloody primary between hopefuls Jose Alvarez, Art Otero and Freddy Villaneuva ended in a run-off, pitting Alvarez and Otero against each other in November.

Both men are sitting Kissimmee commissioners, and in July, Alvarez told the Osceola News-Gazette he was running because he wanted “newcomers to know the satisfaction of community that I know, and I want natives to know that the things that they cherish are not lost, but rather overshadowed by the pains of growth – and that’s unacceptable.”

Wage increases have been a key issue in the non-partisan race, and Alvarez scored the endorsement of the two major labor unions representing the workers at Walt Disney World and other hospitality businesses in Central Florida.

Otero has his own top-notch credentials to tout. He’s the former vice mayor, a member of the Osceola Expressway Authority Board, and former chairman of the Osceola Housing Commission. But he appears to be running as an outsider, telling the Osceola News-Gazette in July the mayor’s seat has “been filled by a lifelong career politician long enough.”

“It is time for new ideas and a fresh perspective. It is time to move our city into an entirely new level and make it an even better place to live, work and play,” he told the newspaper“The time has come to ultimately unite our city and listen to its citizens and their needs.”

St. Cloud Mayoral

The race for the St. Cloud mayor pits a well-known pastor against the community’s deputy mayor.

James Nathan Blackwell faces Jeff Rinehart in the November election.

Blackwell moved to St. Cloud in 1988, and became the founding pastor of Cornerstone Family Church. The church has a weekly attendance of about 1,000, and his position means he’s accountable for a team of 53 staffers and managing a $2.3 million budget.

But his role at the church has gotten him in a bit of hot water. In August, WFTV reported Blackwell used one of his sermons to talk about parties among politicians. According to the report, his decision to talk politics from the pulpit might have been a violation of the federal tax code.

Rinehart served as a St. Cloud city councilman for four years.

“Serving on the City Council is an honor and a responsibility that requires time spent in City Hall and interaction with the residents,” he said on his website. “When a council member is “disengaged” they can make decisions that may not best serve the residents of St. Cloud. I am the Councilman that proved that there was money in the budget, ultimately saving all our taxpayers money and reducing the waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Orange County Commission

Development is at the heart of a contention race in Orange County.

The race for Orange County District 5 pits incumbent Commissioner Ted Edwards against Emily Bonilla, an environmental activist. Both candidates admit it’s become a heated race, divided over a single issue: the two Lake Pickett projects, Grow and Sustany, which promise to bring thousands of new homes to the area east of the Econlockhatchee River.

Edwards is all for the projects, saying they are community oriented.

“I understand that any time you develop open land, people hate to see it go,” he said. “There’s been a lot of opposition, but it has misstated a lot of facts about these projects.”

Bonilla is squarely on the opposing side. While she has stressed she isn’t anti-growth, she has focused her campaign on mobilizing the county against urban sprawl. In August, she called on the County Commission to take another vote on the Lake Pickett project, saying the project would encroach on the Econlockhatchee River Basin and displace many wild animals from their homes.

Tampa City Council

Everyone loves a special election, and Tampa residents have one on their ballot this election cycle.

The Tampa City Council District 7 election was needed to replace Lisa Montelione, who is running as a Democrat in House District 63. It’s a crowded field, with six candidates — Jim Davison, Orlando Gudes, Avis Harrison, Gene Siudut, Cyrial Spiro, and Luis Viera —all vying for a spot on Tampa City Council.

Davison had the lead in an October poll conducted by St. Pete Polls. The survey showed 27 percent of voters said they were backing the emergency room physician, while 10 percent backed Harrison. The mid-October poll found 36 percent of voters said they sure who they were going to vote for.

Issues like transportation, economic development and crime are hot topics this election cycle. But there’s also been a few controversial moments.

Davison returned $1,000 contribution from the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, after the chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democrats filed a complaint asking the the Florida Elections Commission to look into the contribution. The Tampa City Charter prohibits candidates for municipal office to “solicit or accept party funds or endorsements.”

Davison, according to the Tampa Bay Times, raised about $12,000. Viera, the newspaper reported, has raised $71,000.

With six candidates in the running, it’s unlikely one candidate will receive the necessary votes to come out on top come Election Day. That means Tampa residents should gear up for a run-off election in December.

Pinellas County Commission

Three Pinellas County Commission candidates got a pass, winning their seats after running unopposed.

The fourth seat, that’s where all the action is.

Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice is hoping to keep his seat, and faces retired businessman Mike Mikurak, a Republican, in the District 3 race.

Justice has been hammered for his positions over the years, including the commission’s unanimous vote to refuse a developer’s request to rezone land in Safety Harbor. The developer later sued, and a judge entered a $16.5 million judgement against the county.

Justice has said the charges aren’t gaining traction, in part because he said the county is doing better than it was four years ago. Commission members work together, and the county has worked through financial issues and have made peace with cities and other commissions across the Bay.

The two men have also clashed over sewage being dumped into the Bay. During the last two tropical storms, the St. Petersburg sewer system was overwhelmed by millions of gallons of partially treated or untreated wastewater.

Leon County Superintendent

The race to lead Leon County Schools has been one of the nastiest on record.

Need proof? Superintendent Jackie Pons came under fire in September after he launched a TV spot that focused on a 2013 paternity lawsuit involving opponent Rocky Hanna. His longtime media consultant left over the ad, a top supporter withdrew his support, and Pons faced immediate backlash on social media.

Pons, who has served as superintendent since 2006, apologized and pulled the ad after a few days. He said while the advertisement was truthful and factual, “it was a mistake.”

“I wouldn’t have even expected Donald Trump to do that, quite honestly,” said Hanna during an October debate hosted by WCTV. “But there’s a line you don’t cross. No job, winning no election is worth sacrificing someone else’s family when you have no idea what’s gone on.”

A Tallahassee native, Hanna has spent the past three years working with special sites and programs, including students in foster care. Before that, he served as the dean of students at Leon High School, moving his way up the ranks to becoming the school’s principal.

Pons and Hanna aren’t the only ones in the race. Patricia Ann Sunday and Forrest Van Camp are also running.

Leon County Sheriff

Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood is hoping to keep his seat, but will need to fend off three other hopefuls to keep his job.

Wood, who is running as a no party affiliate candidate, has built up good will in the community and the department over the years. He joined the force as a deputy sheriff in March 2983, moving up the ranks over his 30-year career. He was hired as Under Sheriff on Jan. 1, 2015. He was appointed sheriff 22 days later following the death of longtime Sheriff Larry Campbell.

The battle to keep his job won’t be an easy one. He faces three former law enforcement officials, including the former Tallahassee police chief.

Walt McNeil, who’s running as a Democrat, served as the chief of the Tallahassee and Quincy policy departments, as well as a stint as the Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections. Like Wood, he has deep roots and deep connections in the community.

Republican Charles Strickland, a former lieutenant with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and the CEO of Talon Training, and Tommy Mills, a no party affiliation candidate, are also running. Strickland, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, has the backing of Machelle Campbell, the former sheriff’s wife.

Sheriff Campbell, according to the Democrat, had planned to back Wood as his successor.

Jacksonville slots referendum

For the second time this year, Jacksonville voters are faced with a County Referendum 1 on their ballot. The first CR 1 authorized the extension of the current half-cent sales tax past its current 2030 sunset date, and earmarking funds from that to address the city’s $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability.

The new CR 1? It would allow slot machines at licensed pari-mutel facilities in Duval County. The initiative is backed by Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, which owns the bestbet facility expected to house the slot machines if it passes.

Supporters of the initiative say it will create jobs, and $5 million or so in anticipated tax revenue (1.5 percent of gross proceeds) will go to much-needed city services.

But the Florida Times-Union points out, the referendum could be moot, regardless of the outcome. The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that will decide whether slots can be legalized through a countywide vote.

Monroe County Zika initiative

Maybe Forbes said it best: The fate of fight against Zika rests on voters in Monroe County.

For more than a decade, Oxitec has found genetically modified insects have served as an effective mosquito control tool, reducing the population and slowing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. The process has worked in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Panama, and the company is prepared to begin its first trial in the United States.

But before the trial can start, Monroe County residents have to head to the polls to say whether they support the proposed trial.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District agreed to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot to gauge support for the ballots. The decision came after residents expressed concern about the trial, despite years of discussion over it.

Two referendums will be on the ballot — one in Key Haven, and a second on ballots across Monroe County. Although the referendum is non-binding, Forbes reported three of the five mosquito board members said they would take the public’s decision into account before moving forward.

There’s been a big push to rally support for the referendum. The Florida Keys Safety Alliance formed earlier this year, launching a public education campaign to reach residents in the Keys.

__Staff writers A.G. Gancarski, Lawrence Griffin, Anne Lindberg, and Mitch Perry contributed to this report

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