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Pat Frank goes on offense in Clerk of the Court debate at Tampa Tiger Bay Club

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It’s not as if there’s a whole slew of elected Democrats in Hillsborough County, so when County Commissioner Kevin Beckner announced a year ago he would challenge Pat Frank in her bid for re-election to the Clerk of the County Court, it was a major story in local politics.

The two respected Democrats presented dissimilar narratives about what had been communicated (or miscommunicated) between them last year, and they repeated their competing versions of those conversations at Friday’s Tiger Bay Club meeting at the Ferguson Law Center in downtown Tampa.

Frank maintains that the two of them only spoke about her future in early 2015 . “And then he called and called and called and called and called and finally, I told him, ‘when I’m ready to tell you, I’ll tell you,” she said, adding that Beckner had told her he needed an answer because he had a schedule to meet.

“I think it was a fundraising schedule,” she added, saying she ultimately told him that she didn’t own the job, and it was up to him to decide on whether to run for the seat.

“So we’re both in it. What’s the beef in it? That’s what America is all about,” she said about the fact that she is being opposed by another Democrat in her bid for re-election to the post, which she’s held since 2004.

“So now I will tell how it actually happened,” Beckner replied, eliciting a howl from the larger than usual Tiger Bay crowd. He said that Frank approached him in a parking garage in 2014 to say that she wanted to speak to him because she would be stepping down in the fall of 2016.

He said he told her at the time he hadn’t a clue about his future after he was term-limited out of his commission seat this year, but said she then invited him to a Christmas Party in 2014, where she introduced him to some staffers. “We were on a path where she was actually going through retirement.”

He said she then told him shortly thereafter that he should speak to Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen, an ally of Frank’s who works part-time in the Clerk’s office and was apparently thinking of running for the seat in 2016. Cohen said he wouldn’t run for the seat.

Beckner then said in March of 2015 that Franks said she wouldn’t make a decision about running until the spring of 2016, forcing his hand last April to announce he would be running for the seat.

Frank ended the exchange with a sly bit of humor. “Kevin, I won’t use your youthfulness against your memory loss.”

The barb had some resonance, though,  as age is definitely a part of this campaign. Beckner is 45, Frank 86.

At this point we should mention that there was a third candidate speaking on Friday, former Fox 13 consumer reporter Eric Seidel, 53, running as a Republican. He’ll face the winner of the Frank-Beckner contest in the fall.

Frank was feeling confident on Friday, as she was the recipient of an award earlier this week based on customer service, workforce and organization.

During the Q&A part of forum, she was asked by audience member Toni Thompson her thoughts about working from home.

Frank responded by saying that someone had recently made a public records request to learn more about her attendance record. She said that her office has 10 separate locations. “I’m out and around them if I’m not in the main office,” while adding that she hadn’t had a vacation since Christmas of 2015.

“How many vacations have you had, Kevin?” she said in concluding her answer, as if she believed that the public information request was made by her Democratic opponent.

Although a similar accusation was made earlier this week in the State Attorney’s race between Democratic challenger Andrew Warren and GOP incumbent Mark Ober, the issue of working too much from home is not a new for Frank.

Four years ago, WTSP’s Mike Deeson reported that Frank hadn’t been coming to the office for six months, after recovering from heart surgery.

Meanwhile, an ongoing problem for Frank and the other 66 clerk of the courts throughout Florida has been dealing with major budget cuts that have been imposed on them by the state Legislature. A revision to stabilize such funding in 2009 led to their offices budget depending entirely on fees they collect.

“I have responded to the cuts. We’re down to the bare bones, “ she complained. Since ’09, she has cut 157 positions.

The aforementioned Harry Cohen became an issue in the debate when Joe Citro, who has ran unsuccessfully for City Council three times, asked Frank about the City Councilman, who Citro claimed was making $200,000 annually at the clerk’s office, and asked whether it was a conflict of interest.

Frank denied that salary figure, and ultimately asking Cohen how much he made. Sitting at a nearby table, Cohen said he made $65,000 last year on a part-time basis. He went on to say that an ethics board (not named) had determined before he ran for City Council that he could still work in the clerk’s office.

Beckner ofter referred to his previous job as a certified financial planner to give his candidacy gravitas.

When asked why he was running against Frank, Seidel said that “a lot of people” were calling and asking questions that would have to go through the clerk’s office that they had no clue about undertaking. Saying we’re a very “visual society,” Seidel says that videos on the clerk’s website were needed to provide information.

Beckner said that he’s spoke to nearly two dozen current and former employees who have complained about a lack of leadership inside the clerk’s office. “The morale has gone down by the wayside. They are looking for somebody to be engaged in the office, and that’s what I have such a passion for.”

Frank didn’t deny either charge. She said she couldn’t afford to create videos, but was thinking of a creating a cartoon-like character on the website to walk people through the steps in small claims or a divorce to make it understandable for the “average person.”

And regarding Beckner’s charges, she said “I wouldn’t doubt that there are some comments made about me,’ adding that “we’re pushing our employees to action, but in the end, I think they’re very proud of what they’re achieving.”

The Democratic Primary takes place on August 30.

 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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