The Hillsborough County Commission in recent years has mostly had to contend with a sluggish economy and tight budgets.
Development proposals that once flooded the county dried up.
The commission — helped by the astute leadership of County Administrator Mike Merrill — mostly acquitted itself well during the tough times, making thoughtful cuts and maximizing efficiencies without compromising service.
But things are quickly changing. With the economy rebounding, the commission again will face tough growth decisions and the temptation to spend more lavishly.
The next commission also will need to respond thoughtfully to the transportation strategy to be proposed this year by a task force made up of leaders from the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
Only two commission seats — District 4 and District 7 — are being contested in this year’s Aug. 26 primary election (early voting is Aug. 14 to 24).
In District 2, incumbent Victor Crist, a Republican, will be challenged by Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in November’s election.
In this district, which covers east and south Hillsborough, three Republicans are seeking to replace incumbent Al Higginbotham, who is prevented by term limits from running for this position again but is seeking the District 7 seat.
There is no Democratic candidate in the conservative district. But a write-in candidate will appear on the fall ballot, preventing an open election in the primary — where Democrats, independents and other registered voters could participate.
In any event, the Republican field is strong.
Rick Cochran, 49, retired from the Tampa Police Department in January after nearly 25 years of service. The former detective also was senior vice president of the Police Benevolent Association.
Engaging and direct, Cochran clearly has leadership ability and would likely be a quick study if elected.
But we believe his two opponents are better prepared to address the county’s problems.
School Board member Stacy White, 41, is a pharmacist with deep roots in the district.
Businesswoman Janet Dougherty, 52, has a long history of civic involvement. Her parents were founders of the Hillsborough County Republican Party.
Both candidates are fiscal conservatives who understand the district’s many challenges, from Bloomingdale traffic to agriculture’s water needs.
Both see economic development as a priority, yet White and Dougherty also stress the importance of protecting the natural resources that make Hillsborough such an attractive place to live.
They agree that transportation fixes, including expanded bus service, are essential but express apprehensions about rail.
Their styles are different: Dougherty is gregarious, White more restrained. But they are effective leaders.
White is a calming influence on the sometimes divisive School Board, where he does his homework, is a good listener and does what he believes is best without theatrics.
Dougherty has been involved in local issues for more than 20 years, serving on the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Tampa Bay Estuary Policy Board and the Alafia River Basin Board.
The president of a firm that helps companies with recycling policies and regulatory compliance, Dougherty is heavily involved in maritime issues and has worked with the Legislature and Congress on diverse issues.
White is an appealing candidate, but Dougherty has devoted herself to the issues that have regularly come before the commission for decades.
In the Republican Primary for District 4, The Tampa Tribune recommends Janet Dougherty.
Four Republicans and two Democrats are contending for this countywide seat, where Commissioner Mark Sharpe is term-limited.
Attorney Pat Kemp and Mark Nash, a former account executive for Gillette, are vying for the Democratic nomination.
Nash, who worked as a legislative aide to County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, is appalled by the county’s scattered pattern of development and believes leaders need to have a sense of urgency about competing with Orlando and other communities for businesses. He believes transit and smart-growth policies are a key to enhancing the region’s appeal.
Nash, 52, is no fan of Merrill and dismisses the administrator’s success at streamlining and improving county operations.
Kemp, who worked for Kathy Castor when the current U.S. House member served on the County Commission, believes the county should not subsidize sprawl and should focus growth in areas where infrastructure exists.
She believes the area must have more transportation options, and stresses that it’s not just the young who need transit. It makes life easier for older residents as well.
She strongly opposed the county offering incentives to attract Bass Pro Shops and says such transactions are unfair to local merchants.
Kemp, 57, is more measured and has a long record of civic involvement. In the Democratic Primary for District 7, The Tampa Tribune endorses Pat Kemp.
In the Republican race, Robin Lester, 52, offers an impressive business background, founding a firm that links “high-growth companies to global sources of capital.”
She understands the changing economy, especially the high-tech industry, and the importance of making Hillsborough economically competitive.
Don Kruse, who operates a school for those in the beauty and wellness industry, is again pushing the inventive plan he offered in his campaign two years ago.
Kruse, 54, would establish a two-year period during which landowners could improve their property up to 50 percent of its assessed value without assessment, which he believes would generate construction and jobs.
Tim Schock, 41, operates his own consulting firm and has specialized in electronic transportation systems, including the tolling system on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
Yet despite Hillsborough’s backlog of transportation needs, the smart, articulate Schock appears reluctant to support the comprehensive plan local leaders are developing to build more roads and offer more transit options.
While Commissioner Higginbotham, 60, has remained committed to his east Hillsborough district’s concerns, he has evolved while in office and broadened his perspective.
He was instrumental in bringing the Bollywood movie awards ceremony to Tampa. It all started when he responded to some Indian-Americans’ requests for a cricket field. He began to learn more about their culture.
His curiosity about different cultures and enterprises has led Higginbotham to become an enthusiastic ambassador for trade and attracting foreign investment.
Higginbotham supports the multi-government transportation task force’s efforts, though he believes improving roads and the bus system should be the priorities.
He would support rail only if he thought the routes made sense and especially if private dollars were involved.
Higginbotham has been a stickler about spending and budget transparency, a valuable role that he intends to continue if he is elected.
We have had a few differences through the years, but Higginbotham works hard, listens to others and gets things accomplished.
In the Republican Primary for District 7, The Tampa Tribune recommends Al Higginbotham.
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On Monday: Our recommendations for the Pinellas County Commission in the Aug. 26 primary.