Monday, Dec 22, 2014

Race for Pinellas County seat gets scrappy

BY CHRISTOPHER O’DONNELL
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: August 13, 2014 at 09:28 AM

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— It only takes a few seconds to realize that www.johnmorroni.com is definitely not the campaign website for longtime Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni.

In fact, the website that depicts Morroni as a flip-flopping, tax-and-spend career politician belongs to Tom Rask, Morroni’s opponent for the Pinellas County Commission District 6 seat. It’s a tactic Morroni decries as negative, a trait he warns Rask will bring to the dais if elected.

“I think that has worked against him: When people read it, they think it’s horrendous that someone would write that using my own name against me,” Morroni said.

The race between incumbent Morroni and Rask may be the most heated of the three county commission seats up for election this year. Upping the ante is that no Democrats filed to run for the seat, making the Aug. 26 election a winner-take-all universal primary. It is open to any registered voter who lives in the district, which covers the middle part of the county from Seminole to Pinellas Park, including Feather Sound, northeast St. Petersburg and some southern beach communities.

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The Morroni website is typical of Rask’s unorthodox, guerrilla-style approach to local politics. A constant critic of what he sees as local government largess, he sued the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority for spending taxpayer dollars on an educational campaign for the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan. He filed a complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission against county Commissioner Janet Long for not declaring all of her income.

The originator of dozens of public records requests, Rask uses the data to scrutinize public agencies and politicians. He also used public records to build a database of roughly 100,000 email addresses, which he uses to counter messages sent out by public agencies. He frequently harangues elected officials during public comment at meetings, even arriving in Lycra cycling apparel on Earth Day to make his point that the elected officials pushing mass transit only travel by car.

Now, the 50-year-old investor and engineer is running for office for the first time so he can attack what he sees as cronyism and government waste from the inside, he said.

“It’s a nationwide problem but change starts at the local level,” Rask said.

By contrast, Morroni, 59, has bags of experience in office. Before his 14 years as a commissioner, he served for eight years as a state representative. His endorsements straddle a wide political swath, including Democrats and Republicans, police unions and environmental groups, and he has raised almost $117,000 in campaign donations compared with Rask’s total of almost $9,000.

He is dismissive of Rask’s claim that he is a career politician.

“I am a public servant and people of Pinellas County have had a chance to say every four years whether they wanted me to stay in or not and, for the past 14 years, they said, ‘Yes,’ ” he said.

No issue divides the two more than the $2.2 billion Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan that will go before voters in November’s general election.

Rask, who has worked with Greenlight opponents No Tax for Tracks, describes the plan to use sales tax to expand bus service by 65 percent and link Clearwater and St. Petersburg by light rail, as crony capitalism and questions whether Pinellas has the population density to sustain a mass-transit network.

“It’s a plan to benefit politically well-connected special interests, certain developers and real estate interests,” he said.

If elected, he would respect the wishes of voters if they approve Greenlight. He favors improvement of PSTA’s existing bus network by eliminating routes with the fewest riders and developing bus rapid transit corridors, which is part of PSTA’s plan.

Morroni supported putting the plan on the ballot and questions why No Tax for Tracks and Rask opposed letting residents decide if they want Greenlight.

“It gives them a chance to go out and vote against it,” he said.

The holder of a Realtor’s license, Morroni said the mass-transit plan will be a shot in the arm for the county’s economy, drawing more tourists to Pinellas and boosting the real estate market.

“It’s going to bring new energy into the community,” he said. “That’s more people that want to buy your house when you put it up for sale; that’s a good thing.”

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Morroni also supports the passage of a referendum on the primary ballot to offer tax breaks to companies that add jobs in Pinellas by expanding or moving to the county.

Thirty-eight of Florida’s 67 counties and many larger cities, including Tampa, already offer the incentive.

“It’s good for our area,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have all those incentives that those other counties have.”

Rask said he is happy to let voters decide whether to offer the incentive, but said he favors a free market approach. Asked whether that would leave Pinellas at an economic disadvantage, he said there are cities, including Fargo and Bismarck, N.D., that prosper without tax incentives.

“We have a good environment with no state income tax,” he said. “I think we can attract business without the incentive.”

The two do agree that the county should hang on to the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches, land in Pasco County that the county bought for access to drinking water. Pasco leaders want to buy the land to connect to county trails to boost ecotourism.

Morroni joined with Commissioner Norm Roche, with whom he has often voted opposite, to raise awareness and oppose any potential sale. Rask said he would like voters to decide the issue.

If elected, Morroni said he will continue to work with other leaders on issues he sees as important, an approach with which he feels Rask may struggle.

“Just the fact he’s running his whole campaign very negative against me, I don’t see that changing overnight,” Morroni said.

Rask said he can work with others, but not to support ideas he thinks are bad for the county.

“If the good ol’ boys want to continue to put forward rotten plans, I won’t be combative,” Rask said. “I will just outline my reasons for opposing it and vote no.”

 

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 828-6757

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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