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Election is Tuesday, but candidates keeping quiet

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

Pssst. We'll let you in on a little secret. There's an election Tuesday.

Several, in fact. Nineteen candidates seeking eight offices in four cities. It's kind of hard to tell, though. The catch phrase for the campaign season is quiet. The buzz has given way to a nearly inaudible hum.

Whatever happened to public debate? Healthy discussion of the issues? Even a disagreement?

We're not asking for a lengthy policy wonk treatise on the details of tax-increment financing as a municipal redevelopment tool (it's exhausting just to write), but it sure beats antipink benches as a platform plank.

Some of this silence is happenstance. Saint Leo isn't really sure how to prepare for an election. And some of the low-key campaigning is by design, a concerted effort by incumbents to dodge scrutiny of their records. That is the case in Port Richey.

Not everybody is complaining.

"I like calm," said Saint Leo Town Clerk Joan Rogers. "Calm is good. It doesn't sell newspapers, but it's good for Saint Leo."

The tiny east Pasco hamlet is preparing for just its second municipal election since the late 1970s, and its first in 13 years. With an electorate so unaccustomed to going to the polls in April, turnout could be problematic.

"I do have a concern that it's not on anybody's radar screen," said incumbent Town Commissioner Richard Christmas.

The last contested election, in 1989, drew 56 voters to the polls for a turnout of just under 33 percent.

There are no roadside campaign signs, so typical in other elections. Rogers thought about having the town act as a host for a candidate forum, but dropped the idea on the advice of the town lawyer. So, Christmas and opponent Richard Fontane spoke at the Saint Leo Abbey and Fontane met the public at a reception at Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.

Still, campaigning is a new phenomenon here. Christmas didn't open a campaign account and had to find out how to correctly document the cost of stamps, paid for by his wife, so he could blanket the entire town with a mass mailing -- all 194 voters.

In Zephyrhills, the city administration has escaped acerbic barbs as the one bona fide anti-City Hall candidate, Robert Taylor, skipped newspaper interviews and candidate forums. He still picked up the endorsement of the firefighters union. The local's mailing to voters was one of the few signs of the campaign.

"It is quiet, isn't it?" said City Manager Steve Spina, a favorite campaign topic the past few years.

What's a city manager to do?

"Enjoy it," said Spina.

The city administration in New Port Richey hasn't been as unscathed. A pair of candidates are critical of city spending decisions dating back 10 years. But getting the message out has been limited. Main Street New Port Richey held the sole candidate forum and then invited only the mayoral candidates. Some grumbled at the $5 charge to cover the cost of the continental breakfast.

The political inactivity is a sign "people are content and they feel things are moving along," offered New Port Richey City Council member Tom Finn who is not on the ballot this year.


The volume of candidates -- four for the mayoral vacancy and three, including an incumbent, for a City Council seat -- indicates that not everybody is pleased with how the city is running. But, widespread rancor and discord of a year ago, triggered by a controversial paving assessment, has been less extensive in 2002 despite the frequent musings of letter writers to these pages.

Political discord is never out of season in Port Richey. The clandestine campaigns of incumbents Joe Menicola and Pat Guttman and former council member Dale Massad are no accident. The trio skipped the only candidate forum while incumbent Bill Bennett and Fred Miller faced loaded questions from the Citizens Association for Port Richey Inc. audience.

Menicola, Massad and Guttman also turned down interview requests.

"It's because none of them can handle an up-front discussion of the issues," said Jim Priest, who ran unsuccessfully for council a year ago.

It also allows them to escape public examination of profane run-ins with their own Police Department, medical mishaps, circumventing the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, business ties with the city manager, petty vendettas and assorted other ethical concerns.

For Menicola, Massad and Guttman the campaign slogan is clear:

See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

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