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    A Times Editorial

    Three incumbents deserve to keep their seats

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    While some other cities in mid and north Pinellas County have been having their problems in the last couple of years -- city staff turnover, overruns on projects, declining downtowns, political intrigue -- Seminole has been sailing a calm sea.

    That doesn't mean nothing has been happening. On the contrary, Seminole has been on a growth and development streak.

    Recent voluntary annexations have almost doubled the size of the city and show no sign of slowing. Take a drive through town and you will see the signs of change everywhere: land cleared for new homes, the fledgling Seminole campus of St. Petersburg Junior College, a sign announcing the coming of a new community library, a bustling Seminole Mall, businesses being built and renovated.

    But at Seminole City Hall, there is a quiet sense that everything is under control. That is in large measure because a few years ago when Seminole voted to abandon its dysfunctional strong-mayor form of government, the city was fortunate enough (or wise enough) to hire Frank Edmunds as its first city manager. Edmunds brought professionalism to city government.

    But rightly sharing the credit is a City Council, which set the course and stayed true to it, made up of members who were open to learning a new way of governing. A city doesn't make such a smooth transition to a new form of government without careful, competent leadership that can set and reach goals. The seven-member Seminole City Council has proven it can do so.

    That is the primary reason Seminole residents who go to the polls March 6 should return the three incumbents to office.

    Four candidates are running for three seats on the City Council. The incumbents are Pete Bengston, 65, a local floral shop owner and former part-time city employee who was appointed to the council in October to fill the unexpired term of Penny Rasmussen; Pat Hartstein, 53, a county educator who has been on the council since 1994; and Paul Trexler, 54, a machinist who was first elected in 1993.

    The challenger is Leo Mutchler, 62, a retired insurance agency owner from Racine, Wis., who has lived in Seminole three years.

    Mutchler's resume lists a term on the Racine City Council in the early 1970s and other community involvement there. Since moving to Seminole, he has been an active resident of Seminole Gardens apartments.

    Mutchler says he is not running because he is unhappy with city government but just because he wants to get involved in local politics. He makes a good impression in interviews, but some of his ideas are controversial. For example, he thinks Seminole should be talking about creating its own police department -- a huge expense and undertaking for a city of less than 20,000 and an unnecessary one, since the Sheriff's Office provides adequate service to the community under a contract.

    He also thinks Pinellas County needs an elected, rather than professional, county administrator.

    As Mutchler becomes more familiar with his new home, his ideas might more closely reflect the city's priorities. For now we suggest that Seminole does not need council members who would rock the boat, but instead members who are well-informed and would stay the course.

    Hartstein is a quiet member of the council -- "I'm not the talker of the group, I'm the listener," she says -- but she does her homework and has the training and experience to be a consensus-builder as the city grows. Trexler is known as the council member who most regularly votes no in council meetings, but he usually has a reason and refuses to support initiatives that trouble him. His questions sometimes lead to good changes in projects. Bengston has experienced a steep learning curve, perhaps because he worked for the city as part-time annexation coordinator before being appointed to the council, and is fully informed on city issues.

    All three incumbents say they want to continue Seminole's voluntary annexation program without getting into an annexation war with any other city and while carefully monitoring Seminole's ability to provide service to new areas.

    All three candidates say some recent miscommunications with the county government indicate a need to do more networking with county officials.

    The candidates say that while they are concerned that Seminole is not getting its fair share of countywide library co-op money and while they intend to join other cities in the ongoing debate about whether the funding formula should be revised, they would not support withdrawing from the co-op. They point out that co-op dollars that have come the city's way have benefitted the city library.

    The Times recommends votes for Pete Bengston, Pat Hartstein and Paul Trexler in the March 6 election.

    Seminole election

    WHEN: March 6

    AT STAKE: Three seats on the Seminole City Council

    TERM, SALARY: Council members serve two-year terms. The top three vote-getters in this election will win seats. Council members are paid $5,400 a year.

    Candidate replies

    Candidates not recommended may submit a written response for publication. Responses should be limited to 300 words and may not attack opponents. Responses must be submitted by noon Monday to Opinion Page, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756, or they may be faxed to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed to steinle@sptimes.com.

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