Two Veteran Commissioners Face Off in County Race

John Hall wants to keep his job as a Polk County commissioner. But Neil Combee wants his old job back. They’ll find out who gets his wish when they face each other Aug. 18 in the primary election. Both are Republicans who share a conservative ideology, but an anonymous flier has ignited sharp words between the two.

It’s a winner-take-all election because there are no Democrats in the race. All registered voters in Polk County can participate, regardless of party affiliation.

Both have plenty of government experience. 

Combee served on the County Commission as well as the Florida Legislature and the Southwest Florida Water Management District board.

Hall has served 35 years as a county worker, mostly as a supervisor.

LkldNow interviewed the two candidates and also listened to them Friday in a virtual meeting with the Lakeland Kiwanis Club.

Combee previously served four four-year terms on the commission and Hall is vying for a third term.

The candidates disagree on some issues but agree on some, too.

They both are against the mandatory wearing of masks in public.

 Hall has voted with the majority of county commissioners against a mask mandate. He said there’s no solid scientific consensus about the effectiveness of masks. 

Combee said wearing a mask can be hard on some people, particularly those with health problems.

They both said their decades of service to people in Polk County is a strength. Combee is 61, and Hall is 65.

Both agree that Polk County is feeling the economic strain of the pandemic. Both say that if the economy worsens, the county will have no choice but to cut some services, but not public safety.

“Sun ‘n Fun, baseball Spring Training, Russmatt Baseball –, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic impact to the county,” Hall said.

Public safety is huge, Combee said. “Everybody wants to feel safe.”

They agree they will die in Polk County because they  have too much family and friends here to want to move elsewhere.

Anonymous mailer

In mailings, unknown supporters of Hall accuse Combee of being a  womanizer, giving away patronage jobs and wanting his name back on the county’s administration building.

Combee says he doesn’t  believe Hall’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the fliers.

Combee demands that Hall take a lie-detector test to see if he was aware of the fliers before they were mailed. 

Hall said he would take a polygraph as long as Combee took one, too.

Combee said three batches of the same fliers were mailed to Polk County voters, both Republican and Democratic, in the past few months. He said one batch was from Orlando, one was from Tampa, and the most recent one was from Miami. Nothing on either side of the flier indicates who paid for it.

Combee said the accusations in the flier are all disgusting but the one that bothers him most is the one accusing him of hooking his family members up with jobs. He said that’s the worst thing he could be accused of and something he’s never done.

Hall said he has no idea who is behind the fliers — but he wants it to stop. He said he can think of a handful of possible culprits and told all of them to knock it off if they are responsible.

Hall said someone believes that the fliers are a help, but they’re actually a hindrance that could backfire. “I haven’t run a negative campaign,” Hall said. “Why would I do something like this?”

Priorities

Hall said he believes public safety is the top priority for the commission. He said the county’s water supply is an increasingly important issue and the county is going to have to decide whether to build a water reservoir.

Combee said there’s a difference of opinion, but Polk County needs to decide what it wants to be. 

“Some people say we should be like Orlando or Tampa,” Combee said. “Others want us to be Polk County,” like it is and in the direction it’s headed. 

Count Combee in the latter category. He said if people want to live like they’re in Orlando or Tampa, “they need to move there.”

Combee told the Kiwanians that he didn’t buy into the notion that the pandemic has created a new normal. “I want to get back to the normal normal,” Combee said.

Hall said Polk County needs to move forward. He said he wanted to see kids in classrooms.

Hall said he gets along well with the entire County Commission, “a board that can disagree without being acrimonious to each other.”

Combee and County Commissioner George Lindsey have clashed in the past, but Combee said he can work through that by finding common ground through common issues.

At the end of the Kiwanis session, both candidates were asked about their weaknesses. Hall said everyone has weaknesses but he couldn’t come up with one for himself. Combee said he was hearing impaired, which can be a detriment in a crowd or at meetings.