Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
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Political newcomers ready to take helm

KEY LARGO -- The makeup of the Key Largo Fire-EMS board has changed significantly after last week's election.

Three new faces are joining the five-person board: volunteer firefighter George Mirabella, funeral home director Tony Allen and chocolatier Bob Thomas.

Incumbent Tom Tharp lost his seat to Mirabella. Tharp was appointed in July 2011 to replace Mike Edgerton when he stepped down.

Mirabella, who also works for the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, said he ran for the two-year seat because he felt his odds were better against Tharp than Marilyn Beyer, who was retained without opposition and is the last remaining board member to have been on since the district's inception.

Mirabella credits part of his victory to his heavy campaigning, which included spending his weekends along the Overseas Highway carrying a sign and waving at motorists.

Mirabella said he hopes to bring the perspective of a volunteer who has served both the ambulance corps and the fire department. The district board oversees the two departments, with which it contracts for local service.

"I'm going to know if they're asking for something they don't need," he said.

Allen, a political newcomer who purchased the Upper Keys' only funeral home from Beyer, defeated former airline pilot Kent Van Winkle. Allen, who garnered 60 percent of the vote, said he thought the race would be tighter against Van Winkle, who has run for the board before. But like Mirabella, Allen credited his victory to out-campaigning his opponent.

"I did not expect to win," Allen said. "I hoped to win."

Allen said he wants to take a few meetings to get a better feel for the issues before making too much noise. But Allen said he is ready to defend the taxpayers' dollars.

"It's the right way or the highway," he said.

Also joining the board is Thomas, who was elected without opposition. He said he has been reviewing old meetings and preparing to take his seat.

"I am really trying to educate myself about the inner workings of the departments," Thomas said.

He said his goal is to make the meetings more accessible through the public comment stage.

"It's intimidating for the average person to speak at the meetings," he said.

Thomas said he wants the board to be able to have conversations with the audience when necessary.

As to the district's ongoing love-hate relationship with Fire Chief Sergio Garcia, Thomas said he wants things to be amicable.

"This shouldn't be adversarial," he said.

Garcia and the board were often at odds during the budget process earlier this year. Garcia said he was fighting for every dollar he could get for the fire department, while board members said they were fighting to keep taxes low. The board has also sought in the past to gain greater oversight of the two departments by appointing a part-time manager/liaison. The board abandoned that effort when its liaison resigned after a few months on the job.

Tharp, who was the most vocal proponent for the liaison position, warned the three new members to be wary of what he characterized as Garcia's ongoing efforts to turn the volunteer department into a paid one.

Tharp said he will continue to follow the actions of the board, though he does not plan on running for office again.

"I still own property and still pay taxes," he said, adding that he would consider another appointment if the situation arises again.

The new board members are expected to be sworn in at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19, the board's next meeting.

jgore@keysnews.com

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