Castor Playing Ethics Card Against Hart

Kathy Castor is an attractive candidate.

She looks good on paper and pretty in person. Smiling disarmingly as she decries “property taxpayers subsidizing urban sprawl development,” she actually seems to enjoy public policy.

She’s affable, informed and typically positive on the stump. Her best credential — a 3-year, assistant general counsel stint at the Florida Department of Community Affairs — dovetails nicely with Hillsborough County’s thorniest issue: assuring smart growth isn’t some oxymoronic delusion.

And then there’s that Castor name. Without which, some contend, she might have been a winsome loser in the District 1 county commission primary against solid opponents with non-household handles such as Osiason and Dingfelder.

But that was then and this is Chris Hart III.

The 58-year-old Hart is formidable. He is business-issues savvy and a true believer in raising the county’s profile. Hart also has the sort of family name recognition that comes from more than a decade of public service. Moreover, his son is a two-term state representative. He has contacts in Washington, even if inflated.

Although Hart jumped into the race at the last minute, he initially raised more money than Castor immediately following the Sept. 10 primary. He has served on the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and been elected and re-elected to (a countywide seat on) the county commission.

Around here, however, that’s not just hands-on experience. It’s also guilt by association. The commission, dysfunctional on a good day, is collectively and routinely disparaged.

Hart acknowledges the double-edged sword of incumbency.

“Each of us hopes we’re not the one,” he says. “It’s like a family where someone got up on the wrong side of the bed. But the criticism is not totally deserving. We can get too wrapped up in personalities. I think we need to ask what got done at the end of the day. On health and transportation, we have moved forward.”

While the 36-year-old Castor can wax wonkish on water, transportation, indigent health care and older neighborhood re-investment, her best chance is to go right after Hart’s incumbency. Her ethics reform package takes dead, if decorous, aim.

The parameters of a Hillsborough County Ethics Commission would include all the municipalities and could address, she says, everything from nepotism in county government to the sort of legal/ethical dilemma that plagued Mayor Dick Greco over the Steve LaBrake affair.

More pertinent to the election, however, are proposals to strengthen disclosure rules for lobbyists, “clarify” term limits and make commissioners more accountable for their travel and expenditure reports. The latter two provisions are thinly veiled Hart attacks.

In a recent press release, Castor vowed: “When elected, I will work to add a provision to the (County Home Rule) Charter limiting commissioners to two terms — including a jump from district to district. Period. This was the intent of the voters in the first place.” An intent, she more than implies, disregarded and disrespected by Hart who is completing his second term representing District 5 countywide. He hopscotched into the District 1 competition on the last day of qualifying — after bowing out of the mayor’s race.

Then there’s Hart’s reputation for junketeering.

Castor also wants commissioners to publish travel-related expenses in the Commission’s official agenda. Hart’s county travels, notes Castor, have included top-dollar stays in Mexico, Las Vegas, Hawaii and Washington and “exceed all other commissioners combined.”

To Hart, the criticism is like a sucker punch in a velvet glove.

“I followed the end of her (Senate District 13) race with Victor Crist (in 2000) and was disappointed,” says Hart. “It turned negative. Now I’m beginning to wonder.

“She’s looking for issues upon which to mount a campaign,” adds Hart. “There’s already a state ethics commission. Otherwise, her agenda mirrors mine.”

Frankly, some insiders have questioned why Castor hasn’t been more aggressive in going after Hart’s relatively undistinguished record. But Castor sees a localized ethics commission — with reasonable turnaround-time accountability and teeth — as a necessary means to a pragmatic end.

“Before we accomplish anything of substance,” stresses Castor, “we must restore trust. The public has lost trust in the county commission. This could help build confidence. The starting point is a new board in November.”

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