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Florida Votes 2016: Suwannee County Commission District 1

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With Nov. 8 quickly approaching, voters in Suwannee County ready themselves to not only vote for a new president but also for  a new county commission.

County commission District 1 has three candidates: Jesse Caruthers, an independent; John Rothenberger, Republican; and William Hale, Democrat.

Jesse Caruthers, who turns 62 on Saturday, was county commissioner from November 2000 to November 2012 and has been a cattle farmer since 1990.

Caruthers decided in January to run again, citing his 28 years of public service and his experience as commissioner.

Jesse Caruthers
Jesse Caruthers

Caruthers has lived in Suwannee County since 1968 and is a graduate of Suwannee High School.

He said some of the issues facing the county include the need for services for retirees who live in rural areas and growing at a pace that won’t shock the county.

He said growth is important while “keeping this county a place you’d want to raise children at moderate growth.”

The trend of agriculture in the county, he said, will depend on crowding. While rural sprawl pressures the industry, Caruthers said he prefers locally grown food and looks at produce carefully when he shops.

“In the cattle industry, for instance, there’s so many small cattle farmers that it keeps the industry more competitive,” he said. “When you have just a few large corporate farms, it’s dangerous.”

Caruthers said he would create jobs by emphasizing the importance of local contractors.

“We need to shop at home as much as possible,” he said.

Caruthers said he sees challenges in keeping up with services and public works that the public would expect in an affordable way.

Caruthers is a supporter of Florida’s open government law.

“I’m not scared of the open government,” he said. “The public should know what’s going on.”

Caruthers also said he’d vote yes on Amendments 1 and 2.

Amendment 1 would add a section to the state constitution giving state residents the right to use solar energy equipment and would allow anyone not producing solar energy to abstain from subsidizing its production.

“It should not affect me, if I don’t put it in,” he said.

Amendment 2 would legalize medical marijuana for those with a prescription from a licensed state physician.

Caruthers supports medical marijuana if it is used by those who truly need it and it has been prescribed by a doctor.

“It’s no different than any other prescription,” he said.

If elected, Caruthers said his top three priorities would be a no thru truck ordinance in the county, a local preference policy and keeping as much home rule as possible.

William “Don” Hale, Jr., 45, was born and raised in Suwannee County, graduated from Suwannee High School and works as the regional manager for White Brothers Auto Parts.

William "Don" Hale Jr.
William “Don” Hale Jr.

In an interview with WUFT, Hale said he decided to run for office because he believes the country is divided and he can make a difference in his home.

Hale was inspired by his grandfather, John H. Hale, who served on the city council.

“It did make me understand that he had a love for his community,” he said.

Hale said the biggest issues facing the county now are job growth, improving infrastructure and getting grants and care for retirees who have settled in the area.

He said many baby boomers live in the area but are not aware of the options they have for things such as transportation into town for groceries, medical appointments and other basic necessities.

“I don’t care what business you’re in,” Hale said. “Communication is the key.”

He said the county needs to have nursing homes, facilities and other methods of care for the retirees who have settled there.

Hale said he’d also like to see the county’s business incentive program tweaked. The program offers tax grant incentives to incoming or existing businesses based on things such as operation size, salaries and how many people are employed by the business.

Hale said the program might be a little biased due to the different nature of a variety of businesses and wants it to be more just.

As a member of  the Suwannee County Development Authority, Hale said he’d like to work with different entities to create more jobs. He also thinks that board members from each entity could meet once a quarter to share ideas, apply for grants and share resources.

As for home rule, Hale said he’s not in favor of big government.

“I think they should be here as a helping hand,” he said.

Hale said the greatest endorsement he’s received is “having the opportunity to stand on someone’s front porch.”

Hale stands against Amendment 1 for now, he said, because he feels like there is not enough transparency. He does not know how he’ll vote for Amendment 2.

“If there’s enough proof that this works, then maybe it should be approved,” he said.

If elected, Hale said his priorities would be communication and working as a team. He said he favors “any kind of business that suits the needs of the county.”

Hale also said he’d work to keep Live Oak’s Douglass Center around. Originally used in the 1950s as an all African-American school before integration, Hale said it has recently been disused and needs a “facelift.”

“We don’t want to see it go away,” he said. “It has so much history.”

Hale said the county is in need of new ideas and said his business experience, communication skills and willingness to work with others set him apart.

“I know the other candidates’ hearts are in the right place,” he said.

John Rothenberger
John Rothenberger

John Rothenberger, 43,  attended Branford High School, has lived in Suwannee County for about 38 years and is a deacon at his church. He is the warehouse manager at Huffman & Gilmore Feed Seed and runs a small cattle operation.

In an interview with WUFT, Rothenberger said he never wanted to be in politics.

But three years ago, he said, four medical waste incinerators were going to be built near his home, which he felt would’ve been bad for his children and the community.

That’s when he realized, “I may have to step up to protect my family and community.”

Rothenberger said the county’s budget, and the ability to raise money for that budget, is the biggest issue right now.

He said the county’s budget is roughly $89.3 million, which is much higher than last year. He said they are raising money through property taxes to pay for the budget.

“We don’t have the industry that we need to fill in the gaps,” he said.

Rothenberger would like to have a plan with more consistency that doesn’t change each time the person in office does.

“We’re not really planning for the future,” he said.

He would like to have a plan with more consistency that doesn’t change each time the person in office does.

He said there are communication and transparency issues with the city council that have prevented things from getting done.

“Government is not efficient,” he said.

Rothenberger is against Amendments 1 and 2. When asked about Amendment 1, he said he doesn’t “like to put things in the Florida constitution.”

And while he may be in favor of the legalization of medical marijuana to a point, he intends to vote against it.

“It might cause more issues than we realize,” he said.

As for the minimum wage, he said he thinks it should either stay the same or should not raise much higher.

“I haven’t had a raise myself in about 10 years,” he said. “We have to make sure we stay where we can keep our businesses open.”

He said the public needs someone to look out for their interests, and that’s what he plans to do.

This story is part of our guide, Florida Votes 2016, leading up to the Nov. 8 election. Check your voter registration status here.

About Nicole Kocian

Nicole Kocian is a reporter for WUFT news. She can be reached at 352-262-9272, or follow her at @nicole_kocian on Twitter.

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