The hottest local primary race is the GOP primary for Escambia County Commissioner, District 2. Two-term incumbent Gene Valentino faces off against Doug Underhill. Inweekly interviewed both candidates. You can learn more about each on their websites – Valentino and Underhill.
Underhill: Bottom line is I just think that Escambia County should be much more prosperous than it is. We’ve got too much going for us in terms of our military presence, our beaches … We have all the assets. We’ve got all the ingredients. We’re just not doing a good job of putting them together as a community.
I really think that comes down to failure of teamwork. When there’s a failure of teamwork, it’s a failure of leadership. So I think that bringing in more collaborative approach to our leadership style at the county level then we can actually bring those resources to bear, and actually be a competitive and prosperous county.
Valentino: After the first four years, it was ‘Promises made, promises kept.’ On this campaign, we’ve done a lot, we have a lot more to do.
The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) failed in the state legislature. There’s no reason that should have failed. The RTA is an intuitive strategic, funding mechanism to help cities and counties jump start road and infrastructure projects.
The further consolidation of the services of government. We’ve transitioned the jail, back into the county and saved money. Transitioned the library, back into the county with a friendly handshake with Ashton and we saved money. Now there are other divisions in operations of government that I look forward to consolidating.
What we do see as the big issues for the county in the next four years?
Valentino: The one of the big issues that I see coming forward is the jail. I propose the jail campus. (Jail population) is well over a thousand each year. Then why are we building something for less now? Yesterday, if you heard the tape, I said (at Committee of the Whole), “Let’s build the campus, and hypothetically what if we had a jail facility with detention and holding for 3,000 people.”
The truth is I want every bed empty. Because in the concept of a jail campus not only are we training deputies and policemen of Escumbia County, but also for the Southeast United States for a fee, for return on investment. On the other side of the paradigm, you could train the detainees. Electrical, plumbing, welding, carpentry, by the way, beefing them up on their GED, social rehabilitative skills.
Why can’t the training for deputies be a profit center? Why can’t it continuing education in the same facility be of profit center? Why can’t it be a wing or one of those campus extension buildings, 200-300 yards off to the side of the jail? Close enough proximity but removed.
That kind of campus feel. Then train these guys to a standard, so that law enforcement training in this community becomes a hallmark, a standard of pride, rather than a standard of embarrassment. You’re shifting the image of the training within the community which implies our local officers are trained better.
The other side is the prisoners again. They can go into the community and are more quick to become part of the taxpaying based on the community, they’re also part of what do we call the mentoring network. They become the mentor and the tough love sponsor of some guy or gal that needs a little help when they transitioned back to private sector again.
The biggest flaw we have in the jail system is this is a big cavern of unaddressed issues.
Underhill: Well the first thing that a military officer understands is that none of the hard work that he does during his tour will he be around to benefit from, so it just changes your entire approach to leadership. I think that Reagan said it best when he said that nothings impossible to the guy who doesn’t care who gets credit.
My first goal obviously is just bringing civility to leadership. I know from military leadership that you cannot expect more out of your troops than you’re willing to do your self so you set the tone and tenor in the leadership role. If we expect the government at the lower levels to be working together and to be civil to the citizens then we have to set that example from the dais. So that’s number one, that’s my “five-meter target.”
My two longer range targets are that I need to see an integrated, comprehensive master plan for the final push in development of Perdido Key. I want to see a Perdido Key that maintains our village atmosphere, protects our wildlife and our way of life. Since we’re moving we see the economy moving into what I believe is going to be a growth period; this is really our last best chance to make sure that the development of the island is what’s best not just for us, but for our kids in the long term and for the county in the long term.
And then the second one is I want to see us really focus our energy in our community on building our knowledge-based industries; specifically cyber there in Warrington. A kid growing up in Warrington ought to think of himself as growing up in a center of cyber excellence; a center of excellence with the new economy. But that’s not how a kid growing up in Warrington perceives himself. Escambia County and Warrington, in particular, have some of the best, most capable cyber professionals. Now since we’re doing that great work we as a community and we as the Board of County Commissioners need to find a way to get that exported onto this side of that chain-link fence.
How do you see the BCC interaction with other boards and agencies?
Underhill: Well there certainly is a lot of discussion about consolidation. I’m a big fan of consolidating where it saves money. I’m generally very much a states’ right Southerner; once you start talking about consolidating power that bothers me.
Democracy is supposed to be a little bit on the messy side and there’s supposed to be a friction of ideas that comes with having the power base spread out. It’s not intended to be efficient but it’s intended to protect us from tyranny.
I know there’s been a lot of push to consolidate power from the Sheriff’s Office, consolidate power from the ECUA, from the SRIA; perhaps to the extent of actually abolishing those agencies. My perspective is that this is the form of government that the people have chosen over time. It’s my job to do the best that I can do within those constraints and if I start to see that there are ways that we could do better if we will change parts of the form of government then I need to make that argument in and of itself.
I’m not trying to move us incrementally in that direction. If the right thing to do is to change, and if the facts support that argument then leaders would need to stand up and make that statement … Basically make that sale to the people and let the people make that decision. Until that time comes it’s the BOCC’s responsibility to respect the constitutional responsibilities of the Sheriff, the responsibilities of the ECUA, the SRIA, and every other organization within the structure of power within the county.
Valentino: With ECUA, there’s a redundancy of cost to their customer, my voter. There’s a redundancy of operations, and there is a break in communication between the water and sewer expansion network with the county.
Our comprehensive plan, our future land view strategy, is through the land development code and it’s directly impacted by how we do things these days with garbage, water, and sewer.
Phoenix Arizona has 1.8 million people in the greater MSA. One water company, one sewer company, one centralized garbage collection and a non-centralized solid waste system with a sophisticated recycling program.
Escambia County, 300,000 people, 9 water companies, with county leases with those water companies under what’s referred to as well-head ordinances. The duplication of water companies means there’s less profitability of each of the companies and more difficulty for them to maintain, the more difficult to meet EPA standards.
The Santa Rosa Island Authority should be the consolidated, not eliminated, into the county, and called the new SRIA, short for “Special Resort Impact Area.”
The new SRIA would be an expansion of a waterfront initiative, that promotes fairness and balance, and better service for the entirety of the waterfront to this community, from the far reaches of Navarre, to Santa. Rosa County border, at one side, all the way back to the Flora-Bama, at the Alabama line, including the city’s waterfront initiatives.
This authority is an expanded authority with it’s own revenue source, that manages issues like beach nourishment, or beach re-nourishment.
What have learned in your first two terms?
Valentino: Before I can be honest and be true to you, I have to be in the right place with me. Today, when I get passionate about an issue, I’m doing it for the right reasons.
In my first two to three years in particular in this job, I could have done a better job at that. Today, everything I do is measured. There’s a volume control, there’s 0 to 10 on your amplifier. Someday it’s 8, most days these days, it’s 3 to 4. The reason is because I learned more, I’ve learned better than most how important that to be a true leader, you’ve got to listen first.
I don’t have to be right, I have to do right. In order to do right, a good leader must listen, absorb, think, learn, and then respond. The politician will tell you what you want to hear, but the leader will tell you what you need to know. After he listens carefully, and thoroughly, and I think I’ve mastered that.
What’s been the biggest surprise in the campaigning?
Underhill: The amount of positive energy. Just the overwhelming amount of positive energy.
As a military officer I was a little bit uncomfortable thinking that the baby-kissing and the glad-handing would be a little bit sort of unbecoming from my profession and my trade. But what I found was that when I introduced myself and tell people what I’m trying to do it’s not, “Okay, that sounds interesting.” It’s high-fives, it’s hugs, “Come in here and get a glass of tea.”
There’s a real hunger for change that while that I knew I personally felt it, I was just surprised at how universal that hunger is from Mayfair out to Perdido, to the downtown crowd. Everywhere that I have been, and we have been in every neighborhood in District 2, the same hunger for a change and for just honest civil discourse has just been amazing to me.
What’s the last message you’d like to get out?
Underhill: To all of those who have ever gone to a County Commissioner meeting, who have ever stepped up and volunteered to try to do something in this county and then has walked away shaking their heads; I would like you to give Escambia County one more shot. I’d like you to come back, be a part of the solution, give Escambia County another shot at your volunteer time, your energies, your dreams; and let’s see what we can do working together. I think this time they will have a much different experience coming down to the Board of County Commissioners.
Valentino: Not withstanding all of the pain that goes along with this job, I still consider it an honor and privilege to serve.