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A Times Editorial

Hamilton, Gray, Jonson for City Commission

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


On March 13, Clearwater voters will elect a new majority on the City Commission. It may be the most important election in years.

The current City Commission has worked as a team to push Clearwater toward a new era. The city is essentially built out, which means that it will no longer enjoy the benefit of a rapidly expanding tax base. Yet the cost of doing the city's business continues to go up, just as your grocery bill and the cost of filling your gas tank keep going up, and the city's residents continue to demand a high level of service from city government with no increase in taxes.

The current administration has tried to meet that challenge by raising fees, attracting more tourists and spurring new development in portions of the city where existing infrastructure and buildings are aging.

It has not been an easy task. Many Clearwater residents find change difficult and have opposed it. And the city made mistakes in both project planning and communication with residents that led to well-deserved criticism. Current commissioners had to start working to correct their methods while keeping the goal in mind.

The three new commissioners elected March 13 will join Mayor Brian Aungst and Commissioner Ed Hart, and only time will tell whether the work of the previous commission is continued or reversed. None of the eight candidates is an incumbent, and they represent a variety of experience and viewpoints. In preparation for recommending candidates for office, the Times has done an extended interview with each candidate, attended candidate forums, reviewed campaign materials and studied the candidates' positions and backgrounds. We hope that Clearwater voters will do the same and vote on March 13.

Seat 3

There is no name more familiar in Clearwater politics than Rita Garvey. The 55-year-old homemaker launched a political career in the 1970s when she lobbied for the construction of branch libraries in the city. She served as a city commissioner from 1980 to 1986 and as mayor from 1987 to 1999.

In seeking election to a one-year term in Seat 3, Garvey is trying to win back public trust she lost in 1998. Garvey was charged with driving under the influence after she crashed into a parked car on the way to a City Commission meeting. She later acknowledged that she is an alcoholic and completed counseling for the problem. In a recent interview with the Times, she said she has started counseling again at the request of her family.

Garvey is being opposed by a political newcomer, Hoyt Hamilton. Hamilton, 42, was born in Clearwater and, except for four years at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has spent his life here. He or his family operate several businesses in Clearwater Beach. Hamilton is owner and general manager of the Palm Pavilion Inn, and also is a sports agent for some minor-league baseball players.

While this newspaper supported Garvey's past campaigns for office and often praised her independent decisionmaking, we were questioning her leadership skills even before her alcohol problem was revealed. In her last years in office, the city seemed increasingly rudderless and plagued by bad decisions that led to overspending on public projects, economic decay on the beach and downtown, a revolving door for city managers, and decline in city infrastructure, including the old Clearwater Pass Bridge and the water and sewer system.

Hamilton has no experience as a public official, which will make it difficult for him to accomplish much with a one-year term. And we are concerned about the potential for conflicts because of his family business interests.

But we like Hamilton's clear-eyed view of the need for redevelopment in downtown, the beach and North Greenwood to keep the city's business community and its neighborhoods healthy. He supports the city's current effort to spur redevelopment of the beach by allowing two or three high-rise, high-end resorts to be built there, but adds, "I am not -- I am not -- in favor of redevelopment at all costs." He believes the city should be working on a Plan B to improve downtown after last summer's defeat of a master redevelopment plan by voters.

Contrast that view of change and the future with Garvey's, who describes Clearwater as a small town and once conceded that she is not a visionary leader. Her comments in this campaign too often indicate that she is looking backward, rather than toward the future.

We recommend a vote for Hoyt Hamilton for Seat 3.

Seat 4

In no race is the contrast between candidates' backgrounds and ideas more pronounced than in this one.

Lee Regulski, 74, is a retired engineer and builder who was a city commissioner from 1985 to 1992. He ran unsuccessfully for the Pinellas County Commission in 1992 and for mayor of Clearwater in 1993. He was born in New York but has lived in Clearwater for 38 years.

Whitney Gray, 38, is a former science teacher with a degree in zoology who was born in Clearwater, a descendant of the pioneering McMullen family. She never has held elective office and started thinking about running only last year, as discussions about the controversial downtown redevelopment plan were heating up.

One thing Regulski and Gray do share: Both candidates have been deeply involved in the community as volunteers. Regulski is a past president of his homeowners association, the Community Service Foundation, the Clearwater Free Clinic, the Kiwanis Club of Clearwater East, and the Francis Wilson Playhouse, and is an elder at his church.

Gray gave up teaching when her first child was born 12 years ago, but has stayed busy in the community. She served on the city's Environmental Advisory Board from 1994-1999, leading it for two of those years. She is a member of the Clearwater YMCA Board of Managers and the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Citizen Advisory Committee, is a sustaining member and past president of the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin, and led the search committee at her church.

Regulski was known as a city commissioner who liked the details of city government and who made well-informed decisions. In the last couple of years he has become a strident critic of city government.

Good people can disagree on issues. Our discomfort with Regulski is with his methods and associations since leaving the commission nine years ago.

Regulski makes no secret of the fact that in this campaign, he represents Save the Bayfront, the group that fought for defeat of last summer's referendum on a downtown redevelopment plan. Regulski is a director of Save the Bayfront, which received funding from former City Commissioner Fred Thomas, and he was the originator of many of the group's arguments against the project. That opposition campaign used misinformation and scare tactics, and the group still has not come up with any workable alternative for downtown.

Regulski also has made some inaccurate or exaggerated statements in this campaign. One egregious example: At forums he painted the recently approved Beach by Design plan, a concept plan for redevelopment of the commercial portions of Clearwater Beach, as having potential for "taking the beach away from the public."

Though Gray lacks Regulski's City Hall experience, we like her straightforward campaign style, her energy and her eagerness to contribute to the town where she has deep roots. She knows the city must go forward with redevelopment on the beach and downtown to prevent stagnation of its tax base, but she says the projects must be well planned and have community buy-in. She has accepted that the voters' decision in last summer's referendum means that small projects downtown likely will be most acceptable.

She says that long years of "benign neglect" by previous City Commissions led to the current declines in infrastructure and economic vitality, then there was too rapid a shift in the other direction by previous City Manager Mike Roberto. The new City Commission seated after the election "needs to find some path of moderation," she said.

Gray is smart, a quick study, and has demonstrated in her volunteer roles that she possesses the skills to be a leader.

We recommend a vote for Whitney Gray for Seat 4.

Seat 5

Four candidates are seeking this seat: Jeralne C. Burt, Lucile Casey, Frank Hibbard and Bill Jonson.

Burt, 56, says she is running because black Clearwater residents should have a representative on the City Commission. We agree, but Burt is woefully unprepared to be that representative.

Casey, 59, was on the Pinellas County School Board from 1988 to 1992 and 1994 to 1998, and ran unsuccessfully for the Pinellas County Commission last year. Though Casey has lived in Clearwater more than 30 years, she was relatively uninvolved in city government issues until after she lost the county race last fall, and that lack of familiarity shows in her campaign appearances.

In this race, the choice is between Hibbard, a 33-year-old bank investment officer, and Jonson, 56, who recently took early retirement from Honeywell.

Hibbard is an impressive campaigner who has garnered most of the endorsements given in Clearwater city races, even though he was virtually unknown in local political circles until four months ago. We like his energy and ideas and hope to see him again as a candidate.

But we believe that Bill Jonson has earned a seat on the City Commission through more than 15 years of hard work on behalf of Clearwater and its residents, and we urge voters to give him that opportunity.

Jonson moved to Clearwater from Wisconsin in 1984 to work for Honeywell as a systems analyst, accountant and project manager. He noticed soon after arriving that U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard were eyesores with their clutter of big business signs and billboards. As is characteristic for him, he decided to see if there was anything he could do about it.

So began an odyssey that led Jonson to Washington, D.C., and onto the national board of Scenic America, an organization that works to improve the visual environment throughout the nation. Clearwater residents have Jonson to thank for the eventual elimination of big signs and billboards on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Pinellas County residents can thank him for lobbying before the County Commission that led to an improved sign code for the entire county. Jonson was so successful in his efforts here that he became an adviser to other cities that were seeking to improve their appearance.

But that was not Jonson's only interest. He was the first chairman of the city's Environmental Advisory Board, a member of several city task forces, an officer in numerous organizations ranging from the League of Women Voters to the Coalition of Clearwater Homeowners Associations to the School Advisory Council at his children's high school. He was an activist and adviser to the City Commission when it was writing its first land development code and later rewriting it.

People who heard about Jonson's influence were often surprised when they met him. Jonson is soft-spoken and unassuming. He doesn't talk much, but listens a lot. He earns respect even from those who oppose him on issues because he does lots of homework and reaches cautious, well-founded conclusions.

In a city where the public is having trouble trusting its elected officials, we believe Jonson already has demonstrated that he can be trusted. He probably won't be Clearwater's most decisive commissioner -- in fact, learning to make decisions more quickly may be Jonson's biggest challenge -- but he will surely be its best-informed.

We recommend a vote for Bill Jonson for Seat 5.

The job

Voters will choose Pete Bengston, Patricia Hartstein, Leo Mutchler or Paul Trexler for three City Council seats in Tuesday's election. Council members run citywide and earn $5,400 a year. They serve two-year terms.

Where to vote

Voting is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. The polling places are Seminole Community Library, 9199 113th N, for precincts 310, 316, 317, 318, 324 and 325; Seminole United Methodist Church, 5400 Seminole Blvd., for precints 301, 303, 305, 306 and 307; and Starkey Road Baptist Church, 8800 Starkey Road, for precincts 252, 254, 256, 258, 260, 266, 275 and 312. For information, call City Clerk Lynne Keane at 391-0204, ext. 102.

Clearwater election

WHEN: March 13

AT STAKE: Three seats on the Clearwater City Commission.

TERM, SALARY: Seat 3 is a one-year term. Seats 4 and 5 have three-year terms. City commissioners now make $15,000.

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 5 p.m. Tuesday to Opinion Page, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756, or they may be faxed to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed (no attachments please) to steinle@sptimes.com.

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