MANATEE -- Contending that Manatee County Commissioner Lawrence E. Bustle Jr. is out of touch with his constituents and perhaps "too friendly" with businesses, Nathaniel A. Leonard, a political newcomer, is challenging incumbent Bustle for the District 1 seat in the Aug. 14 primary elections.
Bustle said he's seeking a second term as county commissioner because he's been very successful in his first term and still has more to offer.
Bustle, elected in 2008 after serving two terms as Palmetto mayor, said that during his tenure as commissioner Manatee County has, in
fact, become a more "business-friendly government," by facilitating their application and approval processes, cutting transportation impact fees and providing incentives so that businesses can create more jobs.
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"We've rallied together with the Economic Development Corp., and the county government has allocated $400,000 to the EDC," Bustle said. "That shows county support to the EDC."
The EDC works to attract new companies to the county and to retain existing businesses.
Bustle is in his third consecutive year as chairman of Port Manatee's Port Authority. Zoning changes around Port Manatee have made it easier for businesses to locate there, Bustle said, driving more investment to the area.
Bustle hopes to turn that region into an "international gateway."
He supports the construction of a bridge linking Upper Manatee Road and Fort Hamer Road in Parrish, stating that north/south mobility is critical in that region. The Fort Hamer bridge would provide quicker access for emergency vehicles, an evacuation route in case of hurricanes, and encourage economic development, Bustle said. "Once the bridge is in place more things will follow," said Bustle, a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
Plans to build the bridge sparked controversy after residents voiced opposition, saying the bridge would disrupt their safety and quality of life by increasing traffic to the area and changing the rural scenery.
When voters go to the polls on Aug. 14, Bustle said he hopes they will remember that he has supported keeping the same millage rate, preventing a tax increase, and that he is "devoting some very common sense leadership and decision making to county business."
"My track record is tough to beat," Bustle said.
Leonard, a counterterrorism consultant for a private company, said he can beat that record.
"He has a proven record, but it's not a good one," Leonard said.
Government officials must fully represent the people, not themselves or small interest groups, Leonard said.
"I haven't seen that in this current county commissioner or when he was mayor of Palmetto," he said.
"You can sell people down the river," if constituents' interests are not put first, he said.
Leonard, of Parrish, said he started his first business when he was 17, joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school and then came back to Manatee County to study ministry. During his military service he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has also worked construction jobs, for a company installing home theaters and running deliveries for a warehouse, he said. Leonard is in the U.S. Army Reserve serving as a chaplain candidate ministering to soldiers. He has not held public office before.
"I know how to research, that's my job, finding solutions to problems," Leonard said. "I know how to research and find truths to issues."
The District 1 commission position went from "micromanagement to no management," he said, and more interaction between the staff and commission should be in place.
"I'm running on 'some' management," he said.
But Bustle said it is not the commissioner's duty to tell staff what to do, adding that "it's certainly appropriate to ask for information and I do that all the time."
Eliminating impact fees under the idea that it will attract more businesses is not the best solution, said Leonard.
"People will want to come build here anyway," he said, adding that tourism, agriculture and the Manatee River are natural appealing factors.
"We don't have to entice them by lowering impact fees," Leonard said. "That's our county dollars."
Leonard, like Bustle, favors the construction of the Fort Hamer bridge.
As of July 20, Bustle had collected $96,039.30 in contributions from supporters, dwarfing Leonard's contributions, which totaled $1,001.04, according to reports filed with the Manatee County's Supervisor of Elections' office.
"At the end of the day, I'm a firm believer that money doesn't buy a campaign," Leonard said. "He can buy signs and fliers, but I'm meeting people on the ground. As I go out and meet people, they tell me they have never had a meeting with him."
About $837 of Leonard's contributions were loans from himself to his campaign.
Bustle has more than 125 individuals and businesses contributing the maximum $500. Those donors include farmers, Pepsico Inc.; Pat Neal, developer and president of Neal Communities; and Waste Management Inc., the sanitation company headquartered in Houston.
"People who do research and study candidates, they should know that when a candidate is getting so much money for a seat that pays $75,000, that shows you that someone behind him has an agenda, and we have to be careful there and let people know that Manatee County is not for sale," said Leonard.
Countered Bustle: "I have widespread support from $25 to $500 contributions from all walks of life. And that shows to a large extend the confidence people have in my abilities. I don't apologize for raising a lot of money. I'm in the middle of the campaign; if he chooses not to engage, that's his decision."
Leonard's annual income is about $95,200, coming from his consulting job and from the U.S. Army Reserve, according to financial disclosure records filed with the county's supervisor of elections' office. Bustle's income is derived from Social Security and military retirements, and from his job as county commissioner. His annual income totals about $169,470.
The District 1 commissioner represents the following areas: Palmetto, Parrish, Duette, Terra Ceia, Rubonia, Palm View, Gillette and parts of Myakka City.
The winner of the Aug. 14 primary election will face Democrat Corie M. Holmes in the Nov. 6 general elections.