In race for Manatee County Commission seat, Carol Whitmore, Terri Wonder clash over development, animal services

MANATEE -- The spectre of intensive development at Long Bar Pointe hangs over a race for an at-large Manatee County Commission seat featuring incumbent Republican Carol Whitmore and Democratic challenger Terri Wonder.

The two have sparred over the hot-button issue of how much development should be permitted at the southwest county site ringed with mangroves and overlooking delicate sea-grass beds in Sarasota Bay.

Wonder, 48, of Bradenton, accuses Whitmore of caving to developers, while Whitmore counters that she has consistently voted to save the shoreline habitat along the Long Bar Pointe property and elsewhere.

Other issues in the race include each candidate's qualifications for office, their work in the community and even their voting habits -- or lack of them.

To Whitmore, 59, of Holmes Beach, the primary issue in the race is jobs.

"I want to bring good quality jobs and businesses to Manatee County, and allow the expansion of current businesses," she said in an interview last week.

What she considers the second-most important issue is also related to jobs: Continuing her work on the Manatee County Port Authority, an economic driver for the community.

"The more jobs we create, the less chance we have to raise property taxes," Whitmore said.

To Wonder, the primary issue in the race is protecting the environment, plus electing a county commissioner who listens to her constituents, she said last week.

She cited "unrestrained large developments threatening to devastate our neighborhoods, small businesses

and county budget."

"We need to get a grip on that," she said.

"This race is about what we do and don't do with our natural resources," said Wonder. "Our natural resources sustain our way of life here and our economy, and everybody knows that. We need to put unrestrained developers in check."

Whitmore, a native of Dearborn Heights, Mich., has lived in Manatee County since 1969.

She is a nurse who works one day a week at a home-health agency, and is a political veteran with decades of experience.

In 1991, she joined the Holmes Beach City Commission, and went on to serve as mayor there from 1998-2006. In 2006, she won election to the county commission, and served as its chairwoman in 2011.

Whitmore currently chairs the port authority, comprised of county commissioners.

Wonder is a consultant for a non-governmental, anti-human trafficking organization called Hafaza International.

She hails from north Florida, grew up in Sarasota County, and has lived in Manatee County almost all of her adult life. She holds a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary education.

Wonder did two tours as a deployed U.S. Army civilian in Iraq, and was a non-combatant civilian social-scientist there, learning about the needs of local populations requiring social reconciliation and reconstruction, according to candidate information on the elections website.

Although Whitmore has questioned Wonder's credentials to run for political office, Wonder said she has worked for years on various community projects to help strengthen families and to combat addiction, but prefers to keep it low-key.

Wonder said she is proud of her work organizing opposition to the proposed Long Bar Pointe mixed-use project.

It was originally envisioned as a 463-acre project with 1,086 single-family homes, 1,687 low-rise multi-family homes, 844 high-rise multi-family homes, a 300-room hotel, a 300-berth marina/boat basin and canal, two 36,000-square-foot offices, a 60,000-square-foot shopping center, 60,000-square-foot specialty retail, and an 84,000-square-foot conference center.

Whitmore was one of four commissioners who voted in favor of a comprehensive-plan map amendment to change the property's land-use designation from residential to mixed-use after developers removed the boat basin from the plans. On a related text amendment that would have opened certain coastal areas to more development, she joined six other commissioners in a unanimous vote against it.

Developers have filed suit against the county in connection with scaled-down plans for the project's development.

The veteran Whitmore has raised $83,885 in monetary contributions, while the novice Wonder has raised $18,602.23, according to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections website.

Whitmore's campaign contributors include developers John Neal Homes, Inc.; real estate developer John M. McKay, Inc.; and members of the family affiliated with Benderson Development Co. But many private individuals are also listed a contributors, along with a large contingent of the area's medical community.

Wonder's contributors include a number of retirees, former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola, the Sierra Club of Florida, and McClash Rentals Inc., a business operated by former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash.

Wonder said Whitmore "can outspend me, but she's not going to outwork me."

"My support comes from mostly small people, it's from people from all political parties, and I'm really proud of that," said Wonder.

If Whitmore is re-elected, she wants to focus on opening a satellite "one-stop" center for the poor in Palmetto or north Manatee County. Right now, churches are feeding the needy, but there's no coordinated care there, she said.

She also wants to keep moving toward full implementation of the county's No Kill policy.

In 2011, Whitmore led the drive to adopt a No Kill policy, which specified the county would stop killing healthy animals in its care under a formal resolution and plan. However, rescue groups have been critical of its shelters' operations and performance since then.

"I'm not a quitter," Whitmore said. "We'll keep moving forward because my citizens are demanding it."

Wonder accused county officials of failing to follow no-kill guidelines, which led to serious problems in county animal shelters. And removing pet adoption services from the enforcement side of animal services, Wonder said, would result in more lack of oversight by the volunteers and rescue groups who have been documenting animal neglect inside the shelter.

During two debates, the candidates clashed over Wonder's voting record -- or lack of it. Wonder voted in the 2012 general election and the 2014 primary election, but she did not vote in the 2013 special election in which a sales surtax proposal to help finance health care for the poor was defeated.

Whitmore accused her of abdicating her responsibility as a voter. Wonder replied that she had been busy organizing people to protest the Long Bar Pointe project, dismissing the matter as "much ado about nothing."

County commissioners earn $78,789 annually, according to Dan Wolfson, senior director, finance department, Manatee County Clerk and Comptroller's office.

Voters will pick their commissioner for the District 6 at-large seat during the Nov. 4 general election.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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