SEMINOLE – Residents interested in learning more about candidates in a couple of area races got just that Sept. 6 during a forum at the Seminole Library Conference Center on the campus of St. Petersburg College.
A capacity crowd heard responses from Pinellas County Sheriff candidates Bob Gualtieri, Greg Pound and Scott Swope, along with State House of Representatives District 66 candidates Larry Ahern and Mary Lou Ambrose.
In the sheriff’s race, Pounds said he would put an end to “fraud” in the sheriff’s office and “clean up the department.”
“There’s a lot of fraud going on,” Pound said, “and it’s all about money.”
He called Pinellas County the No. 1 pharmaceutical outlet in the country, referring to the former high rate of pain pill shops and the abuse of synthetic drugs.
“People at the top are out of control,” Pound said. “If you go to internal affairs, nothing happens. It’s a travesty.”
Pound also is against the use of red-light cameras.
Gualtieri, the current sheriff, and Swope sparred most of the evening on a variety of topics.
Swope pointed out that he is the only candidate with both a business degree and a law degree with previous experience as a deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
He also jumped on the opportunity to point out that Gualtieri was appointed to his current position, not elected.
“Just because you get appointed to the position by Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t make you qualified,” Swope said. “With my business degree I started a law firm and built it up to a multimillion-dollar business. Not only do I have practical experience in operating a business, but I have education in business and finance, which neither of my opponents do.”
Gualtieri followed by jumping on Swope’s lack of experience and the length of time he has been out of law enforcement.
“Scott has been out of law enforcement three times as long as he was in,” Gualtieri said. “The world has changed a lot in the last 18 years. Scott has no management experience. No supervisory experience. I’m the only one that has demonstrated they can run the sheriff’s office in today’s environment. I’ve reduced the budget by $108 million, reduced 600 positions and cut crime at the same time. At the end of the day the sheriff has one responsibility and that’s to keep Pinellas County safe. I’ve demonstrated I can do it.”
On the topic of the biggest issue facing the sheriff’s office, the candidates had differing opinions.
“Certainly, the budget,” said Gualtieri. “You have to have the expertise to know how to operate in today’s environment. We have to do things differently. We have to know how to outsource, make cuts and how to do it. We can’t have everything we once had. Scott (Swope) will tell you he’s going to restore all of these things. Where does the money come from? The bottom line is we have to keep Pinellas County safe and work within the fiscal constraints.”
Swope countered by saying a focus on public safety is missing.
“The only way that’s going to get fixed is to change the person at the top,” Swope said. “There are problems with the focus being on things other than public safety. In the last three years, my opponent has eliminated the fugitive (warrant) section and we now have more than 56,000 active warrants for people in Pinellas County. If you do the math, that’s one warrant for every 20 people that live in Pinellas County. He has also eliminated the DUI squad and a detective from the human trafficking task force. While he did all these things, he still found time to bring in legal counsel from the county attorney’s office in-house (at a cost of) $1.6 million to the sheriff’s office. That money could go to DUI enforcement or (the) fugitive (program).”
The candidates were asked if they had any experience with homeless people and had they ever visited Safe Harbor, a stopping off point for homeless folks who commit minor crimes.
“I have not been to Safe Harbor,” said Swope. “The homeless issue in Pinellas County is a social problem and I think if Safe Harbor had been used as a jail diversion, I would be in favor of keeping it as a jail diversion program. But what it has turned into is a countywide homeless shelter where all the homeless folks are brought from around the county to a centralized location. Unfortunately, Safe Harbor does not take homeless children in Pinellas County.”
“I opened the doors of Safe Harbor in January 2011,” said Gualtieri. “We house 400 people there in a jail diversion program. The jail population is 3,000 people after being up around 3,600. We’re keeping people (who don’t commit serious crimes) out of the criminal justice system. It costs you $106 a day to house people in the Pinellas County Jail. We’re housing people at Safe Harbor for $13 a day. I know Safe Harbor works. It’s a jail diversion program that saves money and it’s great for Pinellas County.”
The candidates were also asked if, under conditions similar to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, would they be in favor of taking legally owned firearms away from their owners.
“No, I would not,” said Swope. “The Second Amendment says we have the right to bear arms. If these people own firearms lawfully, I would not participate in taking those guns away from them. It would be a clear violation of the (U.S.) Constitution.”
“Absolutely not,” said Gualtieri. “I fully support the Second Amendment and the right of people to keep and bear arms. I also support the right of citizens to carry concealed weapons with a permit. I will not support unbridled 100 percent open carry of firearms.”
In the District 66 race, Ambrose made headway with those in attendance on women’s issues, particularly one question dealing with their positions on women’s reproductive rights.
“I think the government ought to stay out of it,” said Ambrose, a Belleair insurance agent with a law degree. “Women have fought hard for their rights and now they’re trying to turn us back to 1950. I, for one, will fight hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“I think the question presupposes there is some law on the books in Florida that prevents a woman from any of the reproductive rights that are being referred to here,” said Ahern. “If you would give me the statute in the law and show me that it interferes with a woman’s reproductive rights, I’d like to see it. It’s a great talking point but it’s not something that’s in a statute or Florida Law. Quote me a statute in Florida law – and you can’t. So therefore it’s not a valid question.”
Ahern was then booed after being reminded that Amendment 6, which is on the ballot in November, is an attempt, some believe, to allow more restrictive abortion laws to be found constitutional in Florida courts.
On the topic of building the economy and creating jobs, Ahern said government is the problem.
“Here in Florida, all it takes is mostly for government to get out of the way,” Ahern said. “We repealed about 240 regulations that were strangling small businesses. We even reduced some taxes on small businesses. We’ve tried to combat some of the unemployment compensation issues that they pay that cost jobs. There again, it’s just being cognizant of the laws we’ve made and how they affect our small business owners.”
“I can tell you one way you’re not going to create jobs in Florida and that’s by giving corporate welfare in Florida. That’s what they’ve been doing,” said Ambrose. “Small businesses are the businesses in Florida. Those people do not need the tax credits multi-national corporations can use. That’s what we’re getting. What we need is money in the hands of the people who are buying our product. Corporations are coming into Florida because we have the cheapest labor and that’s not what we’re looking for. We need to get good jobs that will allow families to buy a house.”
On the topic of mass transit, Ambrose said she was in favor of light rail.
“I wish I could say we could override the governor and get back the mass transit money he turned down. But we can’t do that,” Ambrose said. “It’s gone to other states that are making very good use of it. We need to do something about light rail here. We need to find some way to fund a light rail that’s going to make a difference here. It’ll bring jobs and money to the community, and make life here much easier. We have to get into the 20th century so we can move on into the 21st century.”
Ahern said he favors bus transportation.
“I see we’re finally coming around here in Pinellas County to reviewing the routes of PSTA, something that should have been done a little while earlier,” he said. “But we have a very successful (bus) route here and I believe that’s the best way of getting people around very well in that public transit system.”