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Campaign experience is credited with giving Peter Nehr and edge over the closest competitor, Roger Sellew.
By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003
TARPON SPRINGS -- Peter Nehr was elected city commissioner over Roger Sellew Tuesday night in a race that was tight but polite to the end.
Nehr nearly claimed a majority with 1,370 votes, or about 49.7 percent, to Sellew's 1,023 votes, or 37.1 percent. Business owner Spanos Harding received 284 votes, and attorney Wayne Ekren received 81 votes.
"Oh man, I feel absolutely elated, wonderful, relieved," said Nehr, 50, who owns three Sponge Docks shops and ran unsuccessfully for the commission last year. "I was hoping to get an absolute majority but I really wouldn't have cared as long as I won by one vote."
Voters also overwhelmingly agreed to let the city proceed with two deals involving city-owned land -- the lease of 19 acres behind Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital to a developer for a senior apartment community, and the sale of a 0.4 acre lot on Hibiscus Street.
Voter turnout, at 19.13 percent of the city's 14,642 registered voters, exceeded the candidates' expectations.
There were four names on the ballot, but the commission race came down to Nehr and Sellew, who identified each other as the man to beat from the beginning.
Sellew, a former business executive making his first run for office, said his failed run is only a prelude to future campaigns and he plans to stay involved in city politics.
He had the support of Mayor Frank DiDonato and Commissioner Jim Archer, and he hopes to raise more money when he runs again next year.
"I'm a guy who entered politics less than three months ago and came within a hair's breadth of winning," Sellew said. "I feel very good."
Sellew called Nehr to concede the race and congratulate him. He said he was disappointed by the loss, but encouraged by the number of votes he won.
"Peter came into it with two campaigns under his belt and he had the signs," Sellew said of his main opponent's fundraising strategy. "In my case I was starting from scratch. It's part of the beginning of a campaign that will be continuing."
Nehr said the commission won't change dramatically in the next few months.
Although he ran against Archer a year ago, Nehr says he supports much of the work of the current commission, specifically its redevelopment in Union Academy, tougher code enforcement, improved relationships with the county and more civil conduct at the dais.
Nehr wants to ask more questions and encourage more debate. He also wants to set up a citizens advisory board to get more input from the community.
"I'm not going to be a bull in the china shop," he said. "I hope the other commissioners embrace me and give me the wisdom they've gained over the years."
Nehr will finish the term of former Commissioner Beverley Billiris, who resigned the seat in December so she can run for mayor next year. Term limits will allow him to run for one additional three-year term next March.
For a one-year fill-in term, the top contenders spent heavily on their campaigns, about $9,000 each. The campaign was cordial but competitive as the top candidates quietly linked each other to rival factions in city politics.
Sellew's opponents said he was so politically wedded to the mayor and to Archer that he would owe them his vote if elected.
Nehr's opponents said he was a protege of former Mayor Anita Protos, and could push the city back to its old contentious inefficiency.
The candidates didn't spar in public, as the abbreviated campaign period featured only one well-attended forum held Monday night.
A native of Austria, Nehr has rooted himself in the Tarpon Springs business and political community with his regular attendance at commission meetings and involvement in service organizations.
"Hopefully, it will be a short learning curve," he said.
On the referendum questions, about 70 percent of voters approved leasing the land behind the hospital to the Boston-based developer Gatehouse Group. The lease will bring the city almost $4-million over 50 years. At the end of the lease, the city will get the land back with the apartments on it.
More than 79 percent of voters also approved the sale of a .4 acre lot at 330 Hibiscus Street in the downtown redevelopment area. The city has not yet decided on a buyer, although three groups have expressed interest in the property -- one for a parking lot and two for townhouses.
Nehr will be sworn in during a City Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 11. He plans to run for a full term next March, and wouldn't mind seeing Sellew on the ballot, as long as it's not for the same seat.
"I'm sure Roger's not going away and hopefully, we can serve on the commission together," he said. "I just don't want him running against me any more."
-- Staff writer Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report. She can be reached at (727) 445-4182.
(All votes counted)
Peter Nehr: 1,370 votes, 49.67%
Roger Sellew: 1,023 votes, 37.09%
Spanos Harding: 284 votes, 10.3 %
Wayne Ekren: 81 votes, 2.94%
To lease land near Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital
Yes: 1,899 votes, 70.13%
No: 809 votes, 29.87
To sell 0.4 acres on Hibiscus Street
Yes: 2,122 votes, 79.06%
No: 562 votes, 20.94%