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Pace of development at issue

Two Safety Harbor commission candidates air striking differences on a downtown project.

Published March 6, 2005

SAFETY HARBOR - In a race where the two candidates seem to walk in lockstep on every other issue, the election Tuesday may come down to their one difference: the pace of development.

Commissioner Debbie White supports Harbour Pointe, the mixed-use development coming to Bayshore Boulevard and Main Street.

Andy Steingold does not.

"Although I support development and redevelopment in Safety Harbor, this project I do not support," he said. "I believe this project is somewhat out of character with our city."

The differences in the two candidates became apparent Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

The two are competing for a one-year term on the commission. Neil Brickfield vacated the seat in November to run for Pinellas County Commission. Fran Barnhisel has been serving in the interim.

Some of the questions were subtle jabs at White, who has been criticized for taking money from other Safety Harbor commissioners for her campaign and from Olympia Development Group, which is building Harbour Pointe and recently purchased the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

White accepted money from Mayor Pam Corbino, Commissioner Nadine Nickeson and Barnhisel (her husband gave money). She received $500 from Olympia Development and another $500 from individual employees.

"I don't feel real strongly that the commission shouldn't be able to contribute," she said.

Her opponent, however, said that accepting the money was unethical. "It somewhat gives off a connotation of a good old boy or friends network working on the commission," he said.

White, who owns property downtown, was also asked if she would be able to vote impartially on matters related to redevelopment. She said she did not see that as a conflict of interest.

Steingold, a partner in a Tampa law firm, said he would recuse himself from those discussions if he were a downtown property owner. "I believe I would have to abstain from any development issues that would impact the value of my property," he said.

Steingold said he would not support any projects that are more than three stories tall. He said he knocked on more than a thousand doors and most of the residents said they were unhappy with Harbour Pointe.

He also pointed out that he had not taken any money from development companies.

White, who returned the money to Olympia last week, said balance is the best word to explain her feelings about downtown. She envisions a Main Street full of retailers and restaurants, bustling with foot traffic. She does not see the six stories of Harbour Pointe extending all the way through downtown.

"My commitment to Safety Harbor and the business community remains strong," she said. "The Harbour Pointe project is a great project for our downtown. A vital downtown contributes to the tax base of all the neighborhoods."

Steingold criticized recent commission decisions, including spending $50,000 to study an expansion of the marina. White voted for the study, even though adding one slip would cost about $20,000.

"I support that marina," Steingold said, "but putting those docks in at a cost of $20,000 per slip would cost the taxpayers a total of $740,000 (for 37 slips). That is not fiscally responsible."

The question of development is the candidates' main area of disagreement. Neither supports the gas tax. Both said the best solution to saving the financially strapped museum is to move it to the library. And they are equally concerned about traffic. Steingold, though, said a traffic study should have been done before the Harbour Pointe project was approved.

The two said the commission should work with the FAA to address airplane noise from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

White, 50, has the backing of business leaders, including Cyndi O'Donnell, executive director of the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce, and two Pinellas County commissioners. She even purchased surplus wine from the chamber. (O'Donnell has since been reprimanded by the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco for selling alcohol without a permit.)

White was appointed out of 18 applicants to Robin Borland's commission seat in August. She promised at the time not to run for that seat when it came open. The seat will be filled by newcomer Kara Bauer, who ran unopposed.

A 20-year Safety Harbor resident, White was vice president of government affairs and economic development for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. She also is a former president of the Safety Harbor Chamber.

Steingold, 44, has served on the board of directors for the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History and the Huntington Trails Homeowners Association.

He was a candidate for Florida House and Hillsborough County Court judge in the early 1990s.

Besides the commission race, there are five charter amendments on the ballot:

1. The City Charter will be reviewed only at the time of a regular city election. (As of now, the charter is reviewed every 10 years. If the review year falls on a nonelection year, the charter is reviewed the next year.)

2. Any city commissioner will be removed from office if he or she has two unexcused absences at two consecutive regular meetings or misses a total of four in a year. (Currently, commissioners will be removed if they miss three consecutive meetings, or a total of eight in a year.)

3. Only 10 percent of the population is required to initiate a referendum petition. (It's now 20 percent.)

4. Certain city officials would not be required to post a public official bond.

5. The city would adopt its budget and property tax rate in accordance with state law. (This provision is already in effect.)

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:13:18]

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