During his campaign for re-election, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice has heard some of the same charges over and over from opponent Mike Mikurak.
Two of the most frequently repeated comments have to do with a unanimous vote by the County Commission to refuse a developer’s request to rezone land in Safety Harbor. The developer sued and a judge entered a $16.5 million judgment against the county.
The other has to do with St. Petersburg’s dumping millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay during two tropical storms last summer.
But Justice does not seem overly worried about Mikurak’s charges.
“His role is to tear things down. To put a chink in the armor,” Justice said Tuesday. “All his mail has had an ounce of truth and a pound of twist to it.”
The charges, he said, aren’t getting traction. That’s in large part, he said, because people can remember what the County Commission was like four years ago when he first came on board. Commissioners were fighting with each other, with then-County Administrator Bob LaSala, with fire chiefs and fire districts, with cities and with other commissions.
But LaSala is gone, and the new County Administrator Mark Woodard brings a more collaborative outlook to the role. Commission members themselves are more cooperative, Justice said. They’ve worked out the financial issues that beset the county’s emergency medical services system, and they’ve made peace with cities and that other commission across the Bay.
People are so happy with the county’s direction, that more than 90 percent said in a survey that they had faith in the Pinellas County government.
It’s that kind of collaboration and peaceful resolution to issues that Justice said he wants to continue, which is why he’s running for re-election.
As for the sewage issue — St. Petersburg has become the poster child for a local environmental disaster. But that’s not something the county could have stopped. Full-service cities like St. Pete run their own systems, and the county can’t force its will on them.
“He’s trying to blame me for something that’s not Pinellas County’s responsibility,” Justice said. “To me, that’s very misleading.”
The county, he said, has doubled its budget for pipelining. And Justice recently spearheaded the formation of a sewer task force comprised of, among others, St. Petersburg.
One goal is to open up communication between governments about sewer issues. Another is to find ways each member can help the others, Justice said. And, ultimately, the task force will try to find the means to connect systems to serve all in the county better. That might be actual connections between systems, or it could be building more sewer plants. Or, there might be some other solution out there.
Justice is also sticking by his vote against the Safety Harbor developer. The vote, he reminds, was unanimous from a commission that was dominated at the time by Republicans. Justice is a Democrat; Mikurak, a Republican.
The case is on appeal and Justice said he’s sure it will be overturned. His reasoning: The commission has the power to weigh all sides of development issues and determine what’s in the best interest of the community.
“It’s not that you check all the boxes, you get a land use change,” Justice said. “You check all the boxes, and you get to ask for a land-use change.”
The cities and county still have to weigh what’s best. Otherwise, “developers will be able to build whatever they want without the commission having a say in it.”
In the case of the Safety Harbor proposal, more than 300 people said they did not want the change. They wanted their community to remain as it was.
“I have no problem with standing up for” what the people want, Justice said.
Justice holds the District 3 seat on the Pinellas County Commission. The seat is voted countywide. Early voting ends Sunday. The election is Tuesday.