Tuesday's election could guide city council's direction

One race, but with broad implications: Is the council getting it right, or is change in order?

Published March 11, 2007

A political newcomer will join the Clearwater City Council after election night. But will council members gain a friend or a foe?

Norma Carlough has campaigned on a three-tiered platform, focusing her efforts on clean and safe neighborhoods, responsible redevelopment and waterfront accessibility, but for the most part her ideas are in line with the current council.

Paul Gibson has mostly campaigned on fiscal responsibility, criticizing the council's plan to build a series of waterfront boat slips, its annual spending plan and what he says are high city property taxes.

While the winner of the citywide Seat 5 will have only one vote on the nonpartisan five-member council, the outcome could be an indication of just what direction the voters want that group to move.

Are they happy with the status quo that Carlough, a member of a number of advisory boards, would likely bring?

Or do they want a new direction that Gibson, a newcomer to city politics, advocates?

It's been a relatively quiet, civil race as both candidates campaigned on the grass roots level. They've mostly ignored the Internet and relied on political signs, word-of-mouth and a number of forums.

It's tough to say which one has the advantage. During many of their meetings, the audience appeared divided. Even more, the candidates split endorsements from the six major local organizations that throw their weight behind candidates and political issues.

The Communications Workers of America Local 3179, CLEARPAC - the political action committee for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce - and the St. Petersburg Times editorial board recommended Carlough.

But Gibson has picked up endorsements from the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association Local 1158, Inc., the Fraternal Order of Police, Clearwater Lodge 10, and the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

Both candidates support the proposed Penny for Pinellas sales tax extension that's also on Tuesday's ballot, and they both said they want to reduce taxes. Additionally, the candidates both support the BeachWalk revitalization project and the city's attempts to build a public parking garage at the beach, possibly through a public-private partnership.

But after that, their campaign positions start to diverge, particularly on another issue on Tuesday's ballot: Whether Clearwater should build a public boat slip project.

Carlough supports the city's plans to build the 129 boat slips near Coachman Park, and she feels the city has correctly identified ways to pay for the operation without borrowing every year from the general fund.

"It's something we definitely need," said Carlough, 70, last Wednesday during a forum held by the Rotary Club of Clearwater. "We are a waterfront community and we need to take advantage of the boat docks."

At the same forum, Gibson said he didn't believe the project, estimated to cost almost $11-million, would be self-funding. Gibson, 58, says he supports the idea of placing slips along the waterfront, but not necessarily the current plan.

The two also differ about the downtown.

Carlough said the city has been trying to rehabilitate it, pointing to the streetscape initiative along Cleveland Street. And, she said, other businesses have told her and the city they are interested in setting up shop downtown.

She said it's going to take some time, but "we're at the point we're we need to move forward, rather than just waiting for something to happen."

Gibson said the downtown core is dead and the city needs to first put together a well thought-out plan - something that doesn't include boat slips.

"Short of Starbucks Coffee," he said, "there's nothing to do in downtown."

On the city's almost $400-million budget, Carlough says it's easy to attack the council and city spending, but it's a lot tougher to actually pinpoint where cuts should be made. She says she's waiting to comment more directly on the issue once a council-appointed budget task force comes back with recommendations on how to curb spending.

Gibson wants to craft a "zero-based" budget where "simply put, we look at every dollar and not just the (annual) increases."

Carlough, retired from the insurance and finance business, has been consistent throughout her campaign. Although she mostly supports the council, she said members should put more focus on neighborhoods and projects that will enhance the city's main industry, tourism.

Gibson, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Action First on Clearwater Beach, has continued to hammer that the city lacks fiscal management and once said "the City Council has not met a new program it's not in love with."

He said he probably wouldn't approve any new projects, but has told the Times that he felt the Countryside library should be expanded. During last Wednesday's forum he also suggested that he'd favor a plan to subsidize a movie theater for the downtown.

Later, Gibson clarified his statement, saying he meant he'd support tax incentives to bring in a theater if it could turn the downtown into a destination location.

If elected, Gibson said he'd "speak clearly and forcefully for the citizens of Clearwater, and I don't think it's being done right now."

Carlough said if elected she'd "promise to do the job in a fiscally responsible manner. I live on a fixed income and I don't know any other way."


The job

Clearwater City Council Seat 5 is a nonpartisan spot on the five-member panel and represents the entire city. Council members serve three-year terms and are paid $18,320.26 annually.

The candidates

Norma Carlough, 70, is a retiree who has spent the past four years as a local volunteer. She has served on Clearwater's Environmental Advisory Board and is a member of the city's Airpark Advisory Board, Citizens Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan and the Citizens Advisory Board for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. She moved from New Jersey to Clearwater 35 years ago. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rutherford, N.J., where she earned a degree in journalism. She first worked in the stock and bond division of AT&T, and then moved to this area where she took a job as a waitress with Kapok Tree Inn and eventually worked her way up to a vice president position within the company. Later, she worked with Prudential Insurance and then as a teacher's assistant and substitute teacher for Pinellas County Schools. She has a daughter, Carolyn; son-in-law, Tim; and two grandsons, Eric, 13 and Sam, 11.

ASSETS: IRAs, bank accounts, real estate.

LIABILITIES: credit card.

SOURCE OF INCOME: Social Security and pension.

WEB SITE: none


Paul Gibson, 58, is a Realtor with RE/MAX Action First on Clearwater Beach who recently came into the public's eye during last summer's City Council budget hearings. He moved from Texas to this area about 10 years ago. He graduated from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., where he earned an accounting degree. For a number of years, Gibson was the CEO of Food Cart Systems, a mobile food service company with operations across the United States. He also is the former vice president of UniSite, a telecommunications infrastructure company; the former director of investor relations for Northwest Airlines; former assistant treasurer and director of financial operations for MCI Communications; and former assistant treasurer for Chase Manhattan Bank. Gibson served on the Finance Advisory Committee for Foxborough, Mass., where the 15-member board worked to bring the town's budget into compliance with the property tax initiative Proposition 2 1/2. Gibson has three daughters Cynthia, 29, Susan, 27, and Robin, 24.

ASSETS: stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, 401(k), IRAs.

LIABILITIES: mortgage, credit card.

SOURCE OF INCOME: investments and work.

WEB SITE: none

For information on voting

Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Several Clearwater precincts have new polling places in this election - visit the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Web site at www.votepinellas.com for the latest on your polling place, a precinct finder and sample ballots. The supervisor of elections can be reached by phone at (727)464-6108 or via e-mail at election@votepinellas.com The Clearwater office is located in the county courthouse, 315 Court St., Room 117.