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Forum lets council candidates speak

With the mayoral race in the spotlight, City Council candidates have had trouble showing voters their views. On Friday, they had an audience.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- District 1 City Council candidate Richard D. Kriseman couldn't exactly run with the question.

The Times questions the candidates for mayor: Should Goliath Davis III remain as police chief?
Asked at Friday's Suncoast Tiger Bay Club forum what he would do about downtown St. Petersburg's homeless residents, Kriseman said he was glad to see that the council had supported the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's plans to convert the former Florida Hospital into a food kitchen and shelter for people with jobs.

The lawyer, who was appointed to fill a temporary vacancy on the City Council in December, admitted that would not solve the problem and finished by saying he would continue to be receptive and open to helping the homeless.

Not exactly a comprehensive plan, but he only had 30 seconds. With the nine-candidate mayoral race taking center stage and five contested City Council races out on the fringe, some candidates are finding it difficult to deliver their messages to the voters this primary season.

"We get the crumbs that are left over from the mayor's races," said John Bryan, who is competing for the District 2 City Council seat against Craig Patrick and Bill Griswold. "We get to go and shake hands."

There have been three mayoral debates so far but not many forums for council candidates to air their views. Friday's Tiger Bay meeting in front of about 200 people at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club was an opportunity for council members to shine; a few mayoral hopefuls sat in the audience and did not speak.

But many of the candidates present noted that it was difficult to stand out with 15 people trying to make points during an hour-long forum sponsored by the nonpartisan political club. Three questions were allowed for each race, and candidates had 30 seconds to respond.

"They stayed within their time, but not one candidate said what he or she wanted to," said Jim Gillespie, a businessman and civic leader. "On the other hand, if this is an example of how they're going to talk at a City Council meeting, it will be a good thing."

And don't expect a lot of opportunities to hear the candidates in a formal debate before the Feb. 27 primary. Some groups, including the League of Women Voters, are choosing to wait until the field is culled down to host their forums.

"I've talked to several friends, and they feel all of the races across the city have been flat," said Virginia Littrell, a candidate for District 4. "No real personalities have emerged. There has been no real attention to the races, and this is important because of the low voter turnout in city elections."

Part of the problem is that two of the races will not be decided until the general election March 27. Kriseman, 38, faces Dennis Homol Sr., 37, a city waste water plant mechanic, to represent District 1, the westernmost part of the city.

Attorney Rob Eschenfelder, 33, will compete against James Bennett, 48, the owner of a yard maintenance business, for the District 5 City Council seat, serving residents who live in the southwesternmost part of the city.

In those that will be decided Feb. 27, here is what happened Friday:

District 2

The race to serve the northernmost district of St. Petersburg pits political newcomer Craig Patrick, 28, a public relations executive, against two longtime St. Petersburg residents with lots of government experience, a point that both stressed during introductory statements at Friday's forum.

John Bryan, 50, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident, recently shut down his home-building business to run for City Council. He has served for 11 years on the Environmental Development Commission.

Bill Griswold, 72, wants to regain the council seat he held from 1985 to 1993, which his wife, Bea Griswold, has held since.

If anything has characterized this race so far, it's that there are no clear-cut issues polarizing these candidates. They talk about creating jobs and economic development, as do most candidates for office this election season, but there are few topics being debated that specifically affect District 2 voters.

Friday's forum did little to distinguish the race further, and the candidates gave the kinds of answers you'd expect.

On the issue of whether it was the City Council's responsibility to address education disparities between white and black children, Patrick suggested a mentoring program, and Bryan, who mentors a student already, said he would push the City Council to be involved.

"I think it is a city problem, and I'll do all my efforts to work with the city," Griswold said. "I can't force them to learn, but I certainly can try to help. I'll work with the school board and the PTA to do that."

District 4

The race to represent District 4, which includes the Old Northeast and North Shore neighborhoods, has gelled into an issue-oriented competition. Most candidates agree that the city's zoning and permit laws need to change so that it's not as hard for city residents to redevelop their properties.

The choices for this council seat are Patricia Fulton, 60, a contract technical writer; Chris Eaton, 43, who runs Bridge Builders; Douglas Every, 31, a money manager for MacDill Federal Credit Union who did not attend the forum; Virginia Littrell, 50, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network; and Grace Harris, 39, a homemaker and write-in candidate.

Eaton pledged to restore "relevance and dignity to the City Council."

Littrell said she would lobby for a complete overhaul of the city's zoning and land development regulations.

Fulton, who is president of the Downtown Core Group association of business owners and of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, which hosted the candidates Friday, said she would work to promote a "friction-free City Hall."

"For many citizens, a trip to City Hall is like going to the dentist," she said. "It's painful."

And Harris, claiming she's the underdog, said she would work to make it smoother for people to interact with the city and would reform the city's code enforcement division.

District 6

Four of the five candidates for District 6, which includes neighborhoods south of Tropicana Field, spoke Friday. Chrisshun Cox, 35, a property tax researcher, did not show up.

It's the second forum Cox skipped in a week, and at a meeting before the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Friday morning, he explained why:

"I don't believe in doing a lot of personal appearances," she said, adding that a lot of people in the District 6 neighborhoods already know her. "That's just me."

At the Tiger Bay gathering, the remaining four candidates focused on the need for economic development and job creation in neighborhoods just south of Tropicana Field.

In addition to Cox, the field of candidates for District 6 includes Abdul Karim Ali, 53, a shipping clerk; Ezell Boykins Jr., 51, a printing press operator; Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller, 49, a lab technician; and Earnest Williams, 54, an insurance agency owner who was appointed to a temporary vacancy on the City Council in December after Frank Peterman was elected to the State House.

Waller, showing that the forums work best for those who can speak quickly and clearly, said he would work to attract new businesses, improve existing businesses and create outreach centers in all City Council districts for residents "so people don't have to go to a City Council meeting until 2 in the morning to be heard."

Williams, answering a question about whether problems in District 6 that caused businesses to leave in the 1920s have been solved, said: "The situation is flawed in terms of businesses. It will never be the same as it was before. We need a paradigm shift if we want to see businesses thrive there again."

- Staff writer Lennie Bennett contributed to this report.

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