By Jim Bleyer
Craig Latimer sounds like an officeholder that won’t be seeking reelection in 2020.
He’s served two terms not without controversy. His time is almost up. Worse, his recent actions, demeanor, and utterances prove he cannot be trusted to run the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in an impartial manner.
With a deceptive petition for referendum on the horizon that would make Hillsborough County, along with tiny Liberty County, having the highest sales tax in the state, citizens should be extremely concerned.
The last-second sham referendum is nothing more than a bailout for developers and a subsidy for a sports billionaire paid for by a regressive tax on the backs of the working poor and retirees with fixed incomes.
With Latimer in charge, voters need to worry about the process as well. The referendum promises a $15 billion haul for development interests over 30 years and Latimer has proven less than forthright running the elections office with much lower stakes.
To get on the November ballot, the petition must have 49,000 valid signatures of registered voters submitted to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office by July 27. That’s less than four weeks away but Latimer has been known to adjust deadlines for certain candidates and causes.
The elections office then has 40 days to validate the signatures, a process that will be hidden from the public.
The one percent sales tax increase represents a windfall for developers like Jeff Vinik and Darryl Shaw while inflicting damage on an already hamstrung Hillsborough County School District.
Latimer refused to meet in person with Tampa Bay Beat. He did return a telephone call comporting a contentious demeanor that prevailed throughout the conversation. He said his office operates “100 percent in the sunshine” but said he would not allow any independent observers at the validation process.
Unlike his after-hours acceptance of a resignation letter from school board member Susan Valdes so she could qualify for a Florida House seat, Latimer said he would not accept any petitions or related materials past 5 p.m. on July 27.
That will be impossible to prove if Latimer sticks with his declaration that his office is off limits to independent observers.
The sales tax petition contains misleading information and erroneous financial figures. Latimer said he is not responsible for claims made by the development cabal that hatched the document. The only portion Latimer said he was concerned with was the space at the bottom where information is provided by signees.
None of the projected sales tax figures has been audited as is the case with other ballot referendums. Opponents of the sales tax—and there are many—would have to challenge the ballot language in circuit court.
Latimer’s spokespeople said he would not be working on the Thursday and Friday after July 4 but that followed their claim that “it is elections season and he would be very busy.” Latimer later told Tampa Bay Beat he would be working both days.
With all the contradictions, public restrictions, and the high stakes petition that will bail out developers, Latimer is not a trustworthy steward of the public interest.
An outside agency needs to oversee the process to ensure there is proper, ethical conduct in Latimer’s office and that no laws are broken. The State Supervisor of Elections or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are two possibilities.
In addition to the Valdes incident, Latimer has struggled to get ballots out to overseas and military voters in previous City of Tampa elections under the current three-week arc between the primary and the runoff. He asked the city in April to lengthen its runoff period between the first round of city elections and the final election from three to seven weeks in March and April of 2019.
The request was ostensibly to comply with an existing Florida state law that requires supervisor of election offices to send ballots 45 days before the election.
Although the city charter currently requires the mayor and council members to be sworn in on April 1, the city council changed that through an ordinance.
A longer runoff period would favor candidates whose campaigns are better financed.
Speaking of political bankrolling, Latimer denied asking co-workers for donations in his first 2012 campaign when he was running to be Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections while serving as chief of staff in the Supervisor of Elections office.
Documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times belied his claim that there was no shakedown.
According to one document, Latimer’s campaign coordinator — also a manager in the office — encouraged a half dozen campaign volunteers from the agency’s top staff to donate the $500 maximum contribution. Latimer followed up that memo with an email encouraging the same employees to hit up 10 friends for campaign money.
“To date no one has supplied any names and addresses,” said a Latimer email in October 2011. It went on: “It is important that we raise money to get our message out … You are not going to offend your friends, just encourage them to donate to your future.”
A similar memo was issued by Latimer’s chief of staff, strongarming employees to give to the campaign.
The Sept. 25, 2011 note, from chief of staff and campaign coordinator Peg Reese, listed several action items and was directed to six high-level elections office employees identified as the campaign core team members.”
“If you have not made the maximum contribution yet ($500 per individual), please consider making a contribution before the end of Q1 so we can achieve our goal,” it read in bold. “You can donate monthly to reach the maximum.”
Latimer piggybacked off the update with his request for friends’ names, sent to the same employees.
“Several of you have made generous contributions to the campaign and that has been much appreciated,” he wrote. “Now you can help more.”
A public official with his hand out, in charge of validating a $15 billion referendum, and tabulating the results is not what Hillsborough County voters need or deserve.