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Personal accusations mar elections office decision

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A tense moment between the Seminole County Commission and the county’s own supervisor of elections on Tuesday morning got personal, with implied accusations of bias and a secret agenda pitting the county’s elected leaders against each other over a proposed new 60,000-square-foot elections office.

At the County Commission meeting, Commissioner Amy Lockhart was blunt: “I think the questions that you have seemingly been offended by are our job, and I will not apologize,” she told Seminole County Elections Supervisor Chris Anderson, after he accused the Commission of dragging its feet on the building for implied personal reasons.

Both Anderson and commissioners agreed the new facility needs to be built, in response to Seminole County’s growing pains from adding an estimated 30,000 new registered voters from 2018-2020, and even more since.

The county’s budget for a new elections office, courtesy of Seminole County.

The proposed new office, costing a proposed $14.8-17.7 million, would be built on property in the Five Points project area of unincorporated Seminole County, north of where US 17-92 meets County Road 427. It would sit just to the northeast of the Museum of Seminole County History.

The Supervisor of Elections (SOE) office currently leases a building owned by the Orlando Sanford International Airport for more than $15,000 a month, but that building is too small for the office’s needs, Anderson said. The process began a year and a half ago to find a replacement, but Anderson said he was growing impatient with the process.

“I’ve done my job, and I would say it’s time for you to do yours,” Anderson told commissioners.

In a speech that at one point mentioned him receiving a write-in vote to be president of the United States, Anderson implied that he was being singled out by the Commission to stop the expansion of the SOE office.

But commissioners disagreed.

“What you’re asking for is four times the size of what you have today,” Commissioner Lee Constantine said. The current SOE office is 18,000 square feet. A proposed building as large as 60,000 square feet was being considered, based on a projected future need of more than 52,000 square feet within 20 years, Anderson said.

“What I’m objecting to is that you’re blaming us… that we have some kind of hidden agenda to stop this building,” Constantine said.

Commissioner Andria Herr agreed.

“I struggle with the insinuations… that because you are who you are and you have the background that you do that we should just roll over and give you whatever you want,” Herr said, saying that a proposed public-private partnership for the building wouldn’t have a request for proposals, or RFP, that opens the project up to a public bidding process to ensure transparency and the lowest price while meeting project standards.

“This is not about you,” Lockhart said to Anderson, after applauding his staff as “an incredible team.” “This is not about personalities. Mr. Anderson, I need to go on the record that you are not being treated any differently than any other constitutional officers.”

“The implication and the blame game and the suggestion that you are being treated differently is really not accurate,” Lockhart added.

Herr said that the Commission’s reluctance to sign off on a 60,000-square-foot building was for the sake of fiscal conservancy.

“We need presentations from those that do this for a living in order for us to validate that we’re doing the best possible thing in terms of spending taxpayer money,” she said.

Anderson said that the county was using bad comparisons in determining how big the new SOE office should be. “In Palm Beach County they’re building a 155,000-square-foot facility and they have more than 1 million voters. It’s completely inappropriate to compare,” he said.

In the closing moments of the discussion, Commissioners Jay Zembower and Constantine both suggested passing motions that modified the size of the building being considered. In the end the Commission agreed on a 4-1 vote to move forward with a project at the Five Points project area but without a set minimum size for the building. Previously a motion had been made to have the minimum size be 45,000 square feet.

County Commission Chairman Bob Dallari dissented to having no set minimum size.

“I voted against it,” Dallari said. “I liked the idea of the square footage.”

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