If it came down to just how many mosquitoes a person could swat in an hour, deciding who should serve on the board of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District would be easy.
But board members are responsible for overseeing a multi-million dollar, 70-plus employee operation that is responsible for about $11 million a year in taxpayer funds and sprays bug-killing chemicals across federal wildlife refuges and a national marine sanctuary.
District 3 incumbent Steve Smith will square off against Democratic challenger Tim Root on Aug. 14. The winner will face Republican Stephen Hammond in the Nov. 6 general election.
Smith is in his fourth, four-year term on the board. When Smith was first elected, he was a change agent and served at a time when the agency was going through a volatile change in upper management and change in direction of the agency.
Smith and his fellow board members reorganized the district and brought science and new technology to the agency. But in the past several years, the agency has been tied to controversy. The board came under fire three years ago about the salary it paid its former Executive Director Ed Fussell. At $184,600, Fussell was the highest paid county administrator -- despite having the smallest staff -- and earned more than the governor.
Smith can see people's heartburn with the salary but argued that Fussell turned the agency around and has saved it at least $14 million in chemical costs and expenses through the use of newer and better technology in the past 10 years. Fussell also developed better working relationships with National Marine Sanctuary and U.S. Fish Wildlife Service officials, Smith said.
"He took a broken program and turned it around," Smith said. "We went from being reactionary to more scientific. Without Ed, I don't know where we would be."
Root called the salary "absolutely ludicrous" when compared to what other local government administrators made and what the governor makes.
"You have to question that salary," Root said.
Smith and the board were also criticized for not forcing Fussell to fire and doing more to pursue a criminal case against former mosquito control district Superintendent Mike Spoto, the number two person at the district. Spoto gave company cellphones to his wife, daughter and girlfriend.
When the issue came to light in 2007, the district only ordered him to pay $5,000 in phone bills and handed down a two- week suspension. However, Spoto was given a $15,000 raise several months later, bringing his salary to $110,000 a year.
In 2010, State Attorney Dennis Ward began looking into the case and charged Spoto with felony theft.
In June 2011, Spoto pleaded guilty to the theft charge and a judge withheld adjudication of the charge, but sentenced him to 90 days in jail and two and a half years of probation. Smith testified as a character witness at Spoto's sentencing and said he had already been punished and called Spoto a good employee.
Root contends that Spoto should have been fired and the district should have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to theft.
"It seemed like cronyism to me," Root said.
Smith said the board was not responsible for hiring and firing employees. The controversy did lead to a greater control of inventory, Smith said.
Smith prides himself on continually learning the science and technology of mosquito control and going to classes and seminars dealing with the scientific aspects.
"Our number one mission is public health," Smith said. "Our number two mission is nuisance control."
If elected, Root, a contractor and a member of the Key West Planning Commission, plans to make the organization more efficient.
"I want to see more boots on the ground and fewer people sitting behind desks," Root said.
Root also wants to make the agency more responsive to mosquito complaints outside of Key West city limits. He has heard numerous complaints about the agency not being responsive in other parts of the Keys.
"I intend to respond to their voices," he said.