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District 1 commission hopefuls Estes, Wigington say backgrounds make them the choice

The two candidates running to replace Monroe County Commissioner Dixie Spehar might not have held elected office before, but neither is a stranger to politics.

Democrat Bill Estes is chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Executive Committee, and he made a run for Key West mayor in 2002. Republican Kim Wigington ran for this District 1 seat four years ago, losing to Spehar. In the August primary, Wigington beat Spehar in their second go-around.

Both say the county needs more fiscal responsibility than the commission has shown the past eight years -- taxes went up nearly 8 percent this year -- and that trust in county government needs to be restored.

"I'm running because of what I've seen over the past eight years -- a terrible mismanagement of county government, the way money was spent," Estes says.

"For eight years now, we have watched as our money was spent on projects that made the county commissioners feel good but for the most part were not needed, and depleted our fund reserves."

He's referring to such things as the new $31.6 million terminal under construction at Key West International Airport and the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo, expected to cost $10.6 million or so when it's completed before the end of the year.

"My goal is to restore trust in county government, and part of that is regaining the trust from the state," Wigington says. "The state has to trust us before they give us money to allow us to do what we do. That is ultimate, and it covers a broad category of issues -- budget, being accessible, transparency."

Where they differ is that Estes, a 57-year-old married father of two, looks at government as being mainly all about customer service, and he'd use his 18-year career working in that area for AT&T, and his current career working at the Innerspace Dive Center on Big Pine Key, to improve constituent services.

"You have a problem with the county, you call your commissioner," he says. "Right now, you get, 'Call this person, call that person.' I believe when a person calls a commissioner to get something taken care of, they've already tried the normal route."

He says that along the campaign trail, "A lot of people like my idea of the customer service. That idea seems to hit home."

Wigington, 48 and married, agrees with the philosophy of customer service but has the experience of being involved in the workings of government on both the local and state levels that Estes doesn't. She's says that's a big asset.

Her past work includes overseeing the operational budget at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park after years of volunteering with the National Park Service at Fort Jefferson and the Loggerhead Key lighthouse.

After she moved from Key West to Stock Island, KW Resort Utilities, a private sewer system operator, contracted with the county to sewer south Stock Island. The $4.7 million project was completed in 2003, but a grand jury later found numerous problems with such things as inspections and found the county negligent in its oversight of the project.

"I had researched wastewater a little when I moved out of the city to Stock Island," Wigington says. "This is when the county was dealing with KW Resort. When I got involved, I realized there were much more serious issues... I got involved in depth for the next two or three years, and it got me involved in the Area of Critical State Concern."

Overall, 13,500 equivalent dwelling units were supposed to be hooked up to the sewer system. Today, years later, 400 still aren't connected, Wigington says.

She stayed involved in monitoring Keys sewer plans and in 2005, attended a meeting where the Florida Cabinet was considering how to grade Monroe County on its progress on its 10-year work program to, among other things, sewer the Keys.

That was the meeting where then-Gov. Jeb Bush famously told then-County Commissioner Murray Nelson that dealing with Keys sewers on a state level "is a pain in the butt."

"I went up to leave and [Bush] mouthed something to me, I don't know what it was," Wigington says. "What it was is he wanted me to wait. He sent a staff member to whisper in my ear asking if I would wait to meet with the governor. We talked a good long while about those different issues, wastewater, Area of Critical State Concern."

She says that led to a working relationship, the governor and a citizen.

"After that we started e-mailing. I think I met with him three or four times," Wigington says, to discuss not only sewers but the larger issue of the Keys' designation as an Area of Critical State Concern. The designation means the state has oversight of most Keys growth and development.

"I pushed for us not to be de-designated," she says. The Cabinet agreed -- and continues to agree.

Estes says he, too, can be a strong voice for the Keys. He says his work mediating with the employee union at AT&T helped him learn how to find common ground in disputes.

"He's extremely personable," said Michael Gilchrist, manager of the Innerspace Dive Shop. "People like him, even when he's telling them what they can't have. He's not particularly dogmatic, either. He's more likely to look at each problem and figure it out on its own."

Oh, and one other thing, Estes says: It's not good to have a County Commission whose members are all in the same party. The past eight years, the commission has been made up of only Republicans.

"One-party rule the past eight years. I don't believe that's healthy," he said. "And I wouldn't want my party to be 100 percent of the commission, either."