Dress rehearsal for District 2 Republican candidates

With qualifying for St. Johns County commission seats still weeks away, the four declared Republican candidates in District 2, thus far, appeared before members of the Republican Club of St. Augustine, and Historic City News was there.

Club President Gary Bruce introduced the incumbent commissioner, Ron Sanchez, as well as candidate Karen Stern, Randy Brunson and Ben Adams. “All Republican candidates for this race are qualified and experienced,” Bruce told the members. This is the end of the first term for Ron Sanchez, and his first re-election bid. For four years prior, Stern held the seat now occupied by Sanchez, Brunson was elected and served a four-year term on the St. Johns County Airport Authority and Adams was appointed St. Johns County Administrator in 1997; where he served for 9 years before retiring.

Last night’s forum was a rehearsal of sorts; the first for local candidates in the 2010 Election cycle. The winner of the Republican Primary in August will move on to face Merrill Paul Roland and any other yet undeclared candidates who may run for the seat, either as Independents or Democrats.

After a pre-meeting social and a brief business meeting, attention was turned to the four candidates who occupied the remainder of the evening. The format for the forum was that each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves, take two minutes to answer three prepared questions from the moderator and then each candidate presented a two minute closing.

The questions for the evening had to do with the candidate’s perceived priorities for District 2, steps they might take to reach a mandated “balanced budget” and a response to a challenge from St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar. The Sheriff points out that he has reduced his budget by $3 million and returned $1 million at the end of the last budget year. If asked to make deeper cuts, Bruce says that he’s told that “the next to go are patrol deputies”.

For the most part, the candidates stayed within their allotted times and spoke to the questions asked. The discussion between candidates and members before, during and after the forums was cordial — no cat fights. Other elected and appointed officials were in attendance including Clerk of Court Cheryl Strickland, Commissioner Cindy Stevenson, Representative Bill Proctor, 1st Vice Chair of the St. Johns County GOP Executive Committee Cheryl Robitzsch, School Board member Carla Wright and former City Commissioner Bill Lennon.

Responding to the first question about District 2 priorities:

Brunson: #1 problem is jobs, we need more industry to raise more sales tax, Flagler Estates wants a ball field, but, so does Julington Creek and we don’t have enough money to go around.

Sanchez: Need to support stability in agriculture, continue to press forward with plans for West Augustine infrastructure, work cooperatively with the Town of Hastings, address transportation.

Adams: Complete the 305 extension from Elkton, relieve the bottleneck for people going to work, look at environmental issues and restrictions on agri-business, including stormwater management.

Stern: Sees diverse priorities for District 2 between agriculture, World Golf Village and West Augustine, maintain agricultural heritage of the area, support David Dinkins in his role as St. Johns County Extension Director, complete infrastructure work in West Augustine.

Responding to the next question about the balanced budget:

Adams: Cut expenses, too many layers of employees still in county offices, outsource tasks, use retirees, evaluation of current retirement and health care costs for county employees.

Stern: Be more of a business friendly community while retaining a high quality of life, education of stakeholders and affected employees as to why the cuts are necessary, live within budget presented by administrator – supports Wanchick, look at permitting, regulatory and impact fees and weigh against new jobs created.

Sanchez: Only way is to cut expenses, use incentive plans like the early retirement, recontracting with vendors, says Board plans no tax increase this year, Flagler Estates will have a new community center soon, Golf Course is making money.

Brunson: Local government is largest employer, cut expenses, make better use of excellent volunteers, create local jobs to increase sales tax and take steps necessary to bring businesses here.

Responding to the final question about the possibility of cutting patrol deputies:

Brunson: Has talked to Sheriff, expand civilian law enforcement academy and make wider use of public service assistants where a certified deputy may not be required, protect schools, revisit volunteer safety programs.

Adams: No patrol cuts without thorough study, believes sheriff is in best position to understand his own budget, law enforcement rules and mandates from the state but thinks the sheriff should talk to commissioners for ideas and explanations.

Stern: Nobody wants to see law enforcement cuts, agrees that sheriff’s budget cut already, address responsibility of sheriff in his role to provide for health, safety and welfare for citizens through use of more PSA, part-time, uncertified employees where possible.

Sanchez: Disagrees with making sheriff sit with five commissioners to explain minutia of budget, suggests that administrator should be satisfied with representations from sheriff’s financial staff that the budget is necessary before bringing it to the commission for approval, doesn’t think that we are really facing cuts from patrol but doesn’t want to “micro-manage”.

During the two-minute wrap-up, we heard the “Readers Digest” version of the five-minute opening remarks, Sanchez pointed out that we have 200 less county staff than we had when he was elected, he inherited a lot of the problems and has acted as “a good Republican” to reduce spending and achieve smaller government, pointed to current level of department heads — was 44, now 14, thinks he’s done a good job in first term.

Stern says she has a passion for St. Johns County, even though she isn’t a native, raised two children here, proud of her four years of service on the board, needs to correct some wrongs and some things have gone awry since leaving the board, not afraid to take strong positions, work with other commissioners, restore trust in local government and offer honest representation to the people.

Adams talked about his life-long history in St. Augustine, some highlights of his military and government career, community volunteerism, and to a story about first registering as a Republican and having been with the party ever since, Adams received applause from the audience.

Brunson had the last word, using part of his time to introduce Roy Alaimo; who was elected last night to serve as President of the Young Republicans organization where he has worn the Vice President hat for the past two years. Brunson wrapped up by saying that in county government, “we can do better”. He says that he can do better with our help — and that we can help him to do better.

Photo credits: © 2010 Historic City News staff photographer

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