Candidates not afraid to criticize
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETE BEACH -- Drawn to the race by a thirst to serve, or an urge to point out problems at City Hall, or the inability to stomach seeing the other candidate win, five candidates are running for two City Commission seats.
This year's election, in a city known for its political energy, is fraught with accusations of election violations from and against nearly every campaign. Candidates and their supporters have complained to the city clerk that campaign signs are too big, or are in the wrong spot, or don't include a political disclaimer.
"We just have some real persistent people, and they have a lot of energy, and they're passionate about this," City Clerk Theresa McMaster said.
Three candidates are vying for the District 3 seat, which includes the neighborhoods surrounding Belle Vista. Ed Ruttencutter and Bill Allard, both newcomers to politics, are trying to unseat one-term incumbent Peter Blank.
According to the city charter, a candidate must win more than half the votes cast to become a commissioner. Because there are three candidates in the race for District 3, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff April 2 if the top candidate does not receive enough votes in the March 12 city election.
Blank ran unopposed two years ago, when he won his first term in office. He views this election as his "report card."
"If the people like what I've done, if they like what I want to do for this city, then that's fine," Blank said. "I'll be happy to serve the city."
He also said he is excited to see the city adopt a master plan. Commissioners agreed to launch the master planning process after weeks of haggling over their efforts to adopt new land development regulations.
The debates took place after the campaign had started, so challengers were using the need for a master plan as a campaign platform. Then commissioners changed course and decided to complete a master plan first, effectively taking the idea out of the challengers' rhetoric.
"I don't know if we were backed into it. . . . We just didn't want to spend all the money at one time," Blank said. Madeira Beach recently paid consultants $200,000 to undergo a master planning process; St. Pete Beach has set aside just $50,000 so far.
Blank has been criticized for his friendship with Paul Skipper, the developer who is building a new City Hall without a competitive bidding process, and for his tendency to stick up for Skipper at public meetings.
"I think he's taken a hit on his reputation," Blank said. "I've watched this all the way through, and the man really, really wants to have this City Hall be a showplace for the city, a landmark."
Blank said he also wants to see St. Pete Beach receive more of the state's grant dollars and wants the city to adopt a balanced budget next year that does not use funds from the city's reserves.
Bill Allard has presented himself as the candidate of choice for residents who are disappointed with Blank as their commissioner. Allard said he was urged to run by residents who wanted an alternative.
Then, as he began researching the City Commission's performance the past two years, Allard said he grew concerned about how often the city waives the competitive bidding process.
He is particularly critical of the new City Hall, a building he believes the city is paying too much for. Allard says many developers he has talked to wish they'd had an opportunity to bid on the project. But the unusual deal, in which local developer Paul Skipper provided the land in exchange for the exclusive right to build the building, shut out competitors.
Allard also has raised concerns during the campaign that soil tests on the City Hall site indicate the property was not as valuable as appraisals indicated. As a result, the city spent money on expensive pilings that would not have been part of the project if commissioners had not worked through Skipper to get the land.
"I had no big desire to be commissioner," Allard said. "But the deeper I dug, the dirtier it got."
Allard also points to problems in the city budget. Commissioners have used reserve funds to balance the budget during Blank's two years in office, even though residents were paying more in taxes each year.
"That's the hard story, the dollars and cents of it," Allard said.
Two supporters of other campaigns complained last week that Allard's use of an endorsement from Jack Ohlhaber violated election law. Ohlhaber is president of the city's Council of Presidents, which is made up of various homeowners association presidents. The city is awaiting a decision from the secretary of state's office.
The third candidate, Ed Ruttencutter, said he is trying to focus the issues on the needs of District 3.
Ruttencutter believes that Blank, who earlier this year was considering running for mayor instead, hasn't focused enough on District 3 problems. He criticizes city leadership for kowtowing to the tourism industry.
"I don't like the way the city almost tramples on the residents whenever the resorts or any group like that wants to shut down the city for their own purposes," Ruttencutter said.
He is also concerned about the methods the city used to build City Hall, though he says it's time for the city to get past that issue. "Don't dislike the new City Hall," Ruttencutter said. "Let's dislike the way we got it."
In District 1, Anastasios "Taso" Papargiriou, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 1998 and 2000, is hoping he will succeed now that his perennial opponent, two-term City Commissioner John Phillips, has decided not to seek re-election.
"This year it's a little more intense than it was the other two years," Papargiriou said.
He is challenged by Julie Christman, a teacher at Gulf Beaches Elementary School who admits she decided to run because she did not want Papargiriou to be her commissioner.
"When it became clear to me that Taso was running unopposed, I wasn't comfortable with it, and I could see that some other people weren't, either," Christman said.
Papargiriou, a convenience store owner, was cited by the city clerk for having a container on the counter of his Blind Pass Road store, inviting customers to contribute to his campaign. Papargiriou said he has removed the container. Meanwhile, Christman has filed a complaint against Papargiriou with the secretary of state's office, alleging that he is lying about her stance on issues.
The most emotional of the issues facing District 1 is the widening of Blind Pass Road. The street is expected to be under construction for the next year or more, and residents are dissatisfied with how little landscaping the Department of Transportation plans to plant.
Papargiriou has criticized the city for waiting to persuade DOT to spend more money on landscaping the road.
"I'm sorry, but I think by then it's going to be too late," Papargiriou said. "DOT, once they're out of the city, will never come back again."
Christman agrees that DOT needs to do more to help the road's appearance.
"Something's got to be done because it just looks like a five-lane concrete slab," Christman said.
In 2000, the City Commission voted against a compromise with DOT that would have provided a stoplight at St. John's Church on Blind Pass Road but also would have forced most residential streets on Blind Pass to become cul-de-sacs.
Papargiriou argued at the time that the city should not accept either option and should continue to fight for a light at the intersection but still allow the residential streets to remain open.
Christman said that because she and her husband, Phil Christman, who works in the city's parks division, were head of the North Beach Civic Association at the time, they did not take a position on the controversial issue.
"We got people to come out and talk about it, and we never personally took a stand either way," Christman said. "We felt as leaders, our job was not to take a stance."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks