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Column

We know the 'who' but 'why' is harder to solve

By DIANE STEINLE, Editor of Editorials
Published January 31, 2008


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If you are a local government junkie, it is fun, after an election, to try to figure out what the results mean.

It is easy to look at the results in the two North Pinellas cities that had elections Tuesday and conclude that voters were sending a message.

Ah, but what was the message?

Perhaps the voters of Clearwater and Safety Harbor were saying that they support a progressive candidate who doesn't slam the door on growth.

After all, Clearwater voters gave Frank Hibbard a second term as mayor. Hibbard's supporters called him progressive; people who disliked him frequently accused him of being in the pocket of developers. But Hibbard beat his opponent Rita Garvey 60 percent to 40 percent.

And Safety Harbor voters returned Nadine Nickeson to the Safety Harbor City Commission for another year. Nickeson had been skewered by some residents for her pro-growth decisions, but Tuesday night she won 54 percent of the vote to Mark Taylor's 46 percent.

So it would be easy to theorize that the majority of those who voted in the two cities share the attitudes of Hibbard and Nickeson: that quality of life and the environment must be safeguarded, but that reasonable growth also is needed to position those communities to meet the challenges of the future.

Or, perhaps that theory is bunk.

Perhaps the message the voters in those two communities were trying to send is that they expect their candidates for public office to be informed and fully prepared to serve.

Consider Hibbard's opponent in Clearwater. Rita Garvey had been a Clearwater commissioner for six years and mayor for 12 before leaving office in 1999. Yet she began her campaign for mayor this time woefully uninformed about city business. She acknowledged that she had not closely followed city affairs after leaving office and had decided to run against Hibbard at the last minute. She was left flat-footed by Hibbard in early candidate forums.

Something similar was happening in Safety Harbor. Nickeson's opponent, Taylor, had planned to run against her a year ago, but a last-minute problem with paperwork prevented him from qualifying as a candidate. This time he successfully qualified, but it was immediately clear that he had not kept up with city business during the intervening year.

Perhaps voters understand, even if those two candidates did not, that these are extraordinarily complicated times for people to serve in public office and they need to be prepared.

This theory - that the voters sized up the candidates and rejected those who had not prepared - may be closer to reality. Look what happened in the other Safety Harbor commission race, which pitted Nina Bandoni against Robin Fornino for a three-year term. The two candidates had different positions on growth - Bandoni spoke with less hostility about the city's pro-growth decisions than Fornino did - but both candidates were equally well-prepared to serve. They had worked hard and could answer questions in great detail. The outcome? By the end of the evening Tuesday, the two were only 18 votes apart, with Bandoni in the lead, and a recount could be required this weekend to settle the matter.

Clearwater voters also made decisions on six city charter amendments Tuesday, and dare I say that the results reflected less cynicism about city government than had been demonstrated in past Clearwater charter referendums?

All but one of the referendum questions passed. Voters finally gave the city permission to donate small plots of public land to people or organizations that build affordable housing. Voters eliminated a charter requirement for a referendum when the city wants to issue revenue bonds for projects. They even lengthened City Council members' terms by a year to four years.

Or perhaps the reason the charter questions passed had nothing to do with cynicism or lack thereof, but had everything to do with Clearwater officials learning from past failures that they must limit the scope of charter amendments and word the questions with extraordinary care.

The fun of local elections isn't over. During this historic 2008 presidential election year, we will have two rounds of local elections in North Pinellas. Clearwater and Safety Harbor normally have their city elections in March, but moved them to Jan. 29 to piggyback on the presidential primary. Still ahead, on March 11, are city elections in Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Seminole and several other cities and fire districts. Campaigns already are under way in those communities.

Voters, time to do your homework.

Diane Steinle can be reached at steinle@sptimes.com or 727 445-4184.

[Last modified January 30, 2008, 20:57:12]


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