ST. LEO — Voters in three east Pasco towns will go to the polls Tuesday to decide races that could influence the direction — or even the future existence — of their respective towns.
The stakes are highest in St. Leo, where incumbent Sister Donna DeWitt is being challenged by Lake Jovita resident Raphael “Ray” Davis. Homeowners in the gated, golf community gained a majority on the town commission in 2012 and have pushed through an agenda to remove their homes from the town boundaries or dissolve it completely.
The Florida Legislature is considering bill (HB1401) to de-annex Lake Jovita from the town. It passed the Local and Federal Affairs committee Thursday. If the bill passes, three sitting commissioners (Mayor John Gardner, Robert Inslee and James Wells) would no longer be eligible to hold office. Gardner is not seeking reelection, and town resident Richard Christmas ran unopposed for his seat.
If Davis beats DeWitt, the Lake Jovita voting block would still hold a majority on the commission, giving them the votes to dissolve the town if the Legislature doesn’t approve HB1401 or if the governor doesn’t sign it into law.
“That’s a distinct possibility,” town clerk Joan Miller said. “It could happen if the bill fails.”
But Davis said that’s not his intent. He said he hopes the bill passes, which means he’d be out of a job. But if it doesn’t, he wants to lend his credentials — including an MBA and a degree in construction management — to the town commission. “I want to give the people in Lake Jovita an opportunity to look at both candidates and decide who’s best qualified to serve their needs,” he said.
DeWitt, who has served since 1997, faces a uphill fight. Lake Jovita has more registered voters than the rest of the town. “They have one motive — to get themselves out,” DeWitt said. “They don’t even care about what happens to the rest of the town. It rubs me the wrong way. I almost didn’t run again, but I’m not going down without a fight.”
Davis was one of eight Lake Jovita residents who signed a petition in August seeking the dissolution of the town. He said he doesn’t remember signing the petition, which was notarized and presented to the town commission.
If the bill becomes law, then the commissioners who are de-annexed from the town would resign their seats, and the remaining commissioners could appoint successors, Miller said.
In Dade City and Zephyrhills, longtime incumbents Scott Black and Jodi Wilkeson are facing challenges from political newcomers.
Black, who has served on the Dade City Commission since 1990, is being challenged by Angie Herrera, a center director for Catholic Charities. Black had served several terms as mayor, but since Commissioner Camille Hernandez became mayor, he has found himself on the losing side of many controversial votes.
Hernandez is unopposed in her reelection bid, and her family is bankrolling Herrera’s campaign. The mayor’s husband and son have combined to donate $1,600 to the challenger, who could give Hernandez a super-majority. Commissioners Jim Shive and Eunice Penix already vote with Hernandez much of the time, and Black has been critical of the mayor.
In Zephyrhills, Wilkeson has not joined with other council members in a move to fire City Manager Jim Drumm.
In a recent debate, challenger Alan Knight criticized Wilkeson for requesting a third legal opinion to clarify whether Drumm could be terminated if his contract isn’t renewed before it expires this summer. He called the move a waste of money, but Wilkeson defended the vote, saying Drumm has threatened to sue the city if he isn’t retained.
An architect, Wilkeson has served six years on the city council. Knight is a retired educator who served as football coach and principal at Zephyrhills High.
Polls are open in Pasco County from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Election Day. Each municipality has one polling place:
Dade City: First Baptist Church, 37511 Church Ave;
St. Leo: Town Hall, 34544 State Road 52;
Zephyrhills: Alice Hall Community Center, 38116 5th Ave.