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Carruthers, Rojas are front runners in 3-way race for County Commission District 3

Heather Carruthers wants to "restore integrity and bring back some fiscal financial sense ... transparency in government. I think there's an overwhelming sense in the county that not everyone feels represented."

Carlos Rojas wants to "restore representative government, that's No. 1. I want to root out corruption, that's No. 2. And No. 3, I want to reign in the budget."

And Sloan Bashinksy tells anyone who'll listen that he takes direction from angels.

Voters have their choice of those three to replace Sonny McCoy, whom Rojas defeated in the August primary, on the Monroe County Commission in District 3.

Most watchers say the real race is between the Democrat Carruthers, who runs the Pearl's Rainbow guesthouse in Key West, and the Republican Rojas, an architect.

Carruthers showcases her work to lower windstorm insurance rates in the Keys and help residents statewide settle hurricane damage claims. But Rojas says her political connections, along with her failed bid for the Key West City Commission in 2003, show that Carruthers is entrenched in politics and that the last person we need to fill McCoy's seat is another politician.

"There are a lot of differences between she and I," says Rojas, 40. "The deciding factor is if you want someone who is qualified for the job, someone who is doing work for the residents, vote for me. If they want a slick politician, they can vote for her."

Rojas sees himself as the everyman, not someone who looked to get into politics but did so only because no one else would challenge McCoy in the August primary.

He notes he's already served in several local organizations, none of which had anything to do with politics. They include Key West's Historic Architectural Review Commission, the Florida Keys Council of the Arts (then the Monroe County Arts Council), the Old Island Restoration Foundation and the Marathon Sailing Club.

Carruthers, 49, says she's not a slick politician, but someone who closely watches government and sees its deficiencies.

"I don't think from a financial standpoint we have regular fiscal responsibility," she says.

The County Commission raised property taxes nearly 8 percent for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to pay for previous years of financial mismanagement.

Carruthers knows something about numbers. She was a founding member of Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe, known as FIRM. The group successfully fought state officials to get windstorm insurance rates lowered for Keys property owners following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

FIRM did so by demanding something simple from Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state's insurer of last resort: Require Citizens' rates be actuarially sound and hurricane risk models be transparent versus the veil of secrecy that surrounds for-profit insurers' hurricane-risk models.

It worked: FIRM helped win repeal of a proposed 24 percent windstorm premium increase for Keys property owners -- and an additional rate reduction of more than 30 percent. That led Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty to appoint her in May 2007 to the Task Force on Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Claims Handling and Resolution.

Rojas says he, too, knows something about numbers.

"The main thing that got us into the financial crisis is building really fancy buildings, and now we have to pay to maintain them and it's expensive to maintain them," he says. "If we need new office space, we would lease it. The money goes back into the community."

Carruthers also talks about county buildings but more to illustrate a problem on the commission.

"Something else that disturbs me is that often a commissioner will bring something up and take the rest of the commission by surprise," she says. "A couple of months ago, we had a meeting where [Mayor] Mario [Di Gennaro] said we have to sell the Gato building. Then he produces a piece of paper that lists all the county properties. It's a great conversation, but none of the commissioners knew about it beforehand."

Di Gennaro floated the idea of selling the Gato government building to raise money in a tight fiscal year. Rojas isn't against that but says right now, it's not possible. In this economy, "No one will buy them."

Instead, he wants to slash county salaries.

"The main thing is cutting the salaries of the highest-paid people," he says. He says there up to 30 county employees making $120,000 or more and believes "a good number of them would be comfortable with a salary of $70,000."

He says the only ones who shouldn't be cut are the county administrator and county attorney.

Carruthers is especially frustrated with a lack of institutional knowledge in county government due to high employee turnover.

"One of the things that's frustrating to me is when you want to find information, it's difficult to find it," she says.

Along with that lack of institutional knowledge, she says, is "a culture of fear [among employees] -- they're afraid to say what they really feel." More often than not, Carruthers says, staffers tell the policy makers what they want to hear even if it's not the best advice.

One issue Rojas keeps raising is Carruthers' Pearl's Rainbow, a women-only guesthouse. He says that because it excludes men, Carruthers cannot be a commissioner who would include all points of view when making decisions.

"My opponent discriminates against men," says Rojas, married with a daughter. "I'm a Hispanic, and me, when I get discriminated against, and I do, the best thing I can do is not discriminate against others ... perpetuate the evil."Carruthers dismisses that.

"It doesn't affect the way I look at life any more than it does with my involvement with FIRM, the Key West Symphony or as a former president of the Key West Lodging Association," she said. "Does this mean that if a man owns a big and tall store, he looks differently on small and skinny men and women?"

Bashinsky, a retired attorney, is running nonaffiliated.

One of his main planks was disbanding the so-called Gang of Three on the County Commission -- Di Gennaro, McCoy and Commissioner Dixie Spehar. Voters did that when they rejected Spehar and McCoy in the August primary.

"Now the No. 1 thing is we need to stop killing the ocean and the reef," he said.

"If you look at the qualities -- integrity, experience, intelligence and the ability to focus on an issue -- he has all those qualities," said former Monroe County Attorney Jim Hendrick, who considers Bashinsky a friend. "What removes him from a viable position is his profession to be guided by angels."