Office seekers have declined to participate in forums in three beach communities.
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
Published February 22, 2004
Pete Mickunas was looking forward to attending a candidate forum for St. Pete Beach City Commission. Moderated by the League of Women Voters, the event at City Hall would give voters a chance to meet the candidates and hear their views on important issues. The forum also would be televised so residents could watch it at home.
But the forum won't happen.
When two of the four candidates said they would not participate, the league canceled the event, which was tentatively scheduled for last Tuesday.
"I just think it's important for everybody to have an opportunity to hear the candidates," Mickunas said.
So does Mary Berglund, president of the league's St. Petersburg chapter, which encourages cities to host candidate forums and offers to help organize them. Berglund said she was disappointed the league had to cancel the forum in St. Pete Beach.
"They declined to participate," Berglund said of Commissioner Pete Blank and newcomer Will Jacoby. "We picked a date and worked very hard to interest them."
Blank, who faced challenger Ed Ruttencutter for the District 3 seat two years ago, could not be reached Friday. Jacoby, who is running against newcomer Deborah Martohue, also could not be reached.
St. Pete Beach isn't alone when it comes to troubles with candidate forums.
In Redington Shores, the league offered to hold a forum in the Town Commission chambers, but candidate Gail Conroy said she couldn't attend because the room bothered her allergies. So it appears there will be no forum there.
The Kiwanis Club of the Gulf Beaches also ran into some difficulties when it was planning a candidate forum for Madeira Beach City Commission. The result: Two candidates will attend the function, but their challengers will not.
"It just doesn't seem to work out for us," said candidate John Wolbert, who served on the commission from 1996 to 2000. Candidate Len Piotti, who ran for mayor last year, also declined to participate in the forum.
The Kiwanis organization does good things for children, Wolbert said, but the group should not be involved in politics. "I just feel that it's not appropriate," he said Friday.
Piotti said the Kiwanis group doesn't have a track record sponsoring candidate forums and he wonders why the club is "getting involved in small-town politics."
"There were some concerns, and I went with the majority (of my advisers)," he said Friday.
Forum organizer Eddie Lee, a member of the city's Planning Commission, said the club only wants to provide a service to the community. The group offered to organize candidate forums for all of the beach towns, he said. The Kiwanis' involvement was to invite the candidates, rent the room and hire a moderator, Lee said. The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a nonpartisan political group, will provide the moderator, he said.
"When I first brought this up, I had absolutely no idea there would be any controversy at all," Lee said.
He said Piotti told him he wouldn't feel comfortable attending the forum because the Gulf Beaches Kiwanis club's charter members aren't "people who he had any real trust in."
"(Piotti) seems to think that I'm an okay guy, but not some of the other members in the Kiwanis," Lee said.
Commissioner Doreen Moore, who faces Piotti for the District 1 seat, is one of those charter members. So is Joe Jorgensen, whom Moore has called her "life partner."
As chairman of the city's Board of Adjustment, Jorgensen voted against a variance for Piotti. Piotti sought a court appeal, but lost. The board eventually granted him a variance that allowed him to convert his garage into living space for his grandchildren, but Jorgensen voted no.
"It's become very personal," Lee said of the forum. "But our intentions were always honorable."
Although Piotti and Wolbert declined to participate in the Kiwanis-sponsored forum at 7 p.m. March 2, they will attend a candidate forum organized by the Madeira Beach Seniors Club at 1:30 p.m. March 1. Both events will be at City Hall.
All four candidates plan to attend the Seniors Club forum. But some say the annual event doesn't have a reputation for being fair and structured.
Stan Azevedo, president of the Seniors Club, admits there have been forums in the past that have been boisterous. But it won't be this year, he said.
"I won't tolerate anything like that," Azevedo said Friday.
Jane Colson, who serves on the city's Planning Commission and is challenging Wolbert for the District 2 seat, said she's heard that the Seniors Club forums can get lively. But that isn't keeping her from participating in the event.
"When you've chosen to be in the public eye, I think it's only fair to respond to the public, even though you may have bricks thrown at you," she said.
Belleair Beach: 7 p.m. Thursday, City Hall, 444 Causeway Blvd.
Gulfport: 7 p.m. March 4, City Hall, 2401 53rd St. S
Madeira Beach: 1:30 p.m. March 1 and 7 p.m. March 2, City Hall, 300 Municipal Drive
Indian Rocks Beach: 7 p.m. March 1, City Hall, 1507 Bay Palm Blvd.
Redington Beach: 7 p.m. March 4, City Hall, 105 164th Ave.
South Pasadena: 7 p.m. March 3, City Hall, 7047 Sunset Drive S