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'Shadow' candidates for council emerge

In two races, primaries were not necessary. All five council races will be decided March 27.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council candidates for southernmost and westernmost St. Petersburg have campaigned in the shadows -- until now.

Because each race has just two candidates, there was no need for primaries Feb. 27. Voters focused their attention on races that had one: the mayoral contest and three other council races.

"In terms of fundraising and generating interest, there is a massive amount of voter confusion," said Robert Eschenfelder, one of the candidates for the southern District 5 seat. "People don't understand that Districts 1 and 5 are even up. But that's starting to change; people are picking up and cluing in."

Voters in the whole city should take notice, because everyone votes on all five council races in the March 27 general election. (In primaries, only district voters got to pick.)

Eschenfelder, 33, practices law in the Manatee County Attorney's Office, a job he took after resigning from the St. Petersburg City Attorney's Office last year. He is running against James Bennett, 48, the proprietor of Lawn Order, a landscaping service.

They have conducted a cordial, issue-oriented campaign, appearing at neighborhood association meetings and other gatherings.

A third contestant, Jim Gary, dropped out after learning that his father-in-law is terminally ill. That eliminated the primary, and it allowed Eschenfelder and Bennett to turn their focus citywide several weeks earlier than they had anticipated.

"I had to change my game plan," Bennett said. "I've been campaigning every single day, going to everything I could in the nighttime."

Eschenfelder says voters in his district are interested in several of the same hot-button issues that the mayor's race showed that voters across the city care about, such as water, economic development and the Police Department.

Eschenfelder wants the council to negotiate with the mayor to hire more police officers and put them to work in front-line law and traffic enforcement.

Bennett says neighborhoods outside downtown are tired of seeing nearby businesses close. They want the city to work to preserve existing ones and attract new ones to the vacant bays in shopping centers.

The District 1 race, which covers the neighborhoods around Tyrone Square Mall, has City Council member and lawyer Richard Kriseman running against city wastewater treatment plant mechanic Dennis Homol Sr.

Kriseman, 38, was temporarily appointed to the council three months ago after Bob Kersteen resigned his seat to mount a losing bid for a seat in the state Legislature. Kriseman had lost his campaign for the seat to Kersteen in 1999.

"Having run two years ago, I think at least to some degree I'm not a complete unknown," Kriseman said. "There were a lot of folks who got to meet me. A lot of people turn on the TV and watch those council meetings."

Kriseman sees economic development and effective law enforcement as two important, interrelated city efforts that raise the standard of living in neighborhoods.

He also thinks the city's housing stock has far too many two-bedroom homes, and he would like to pass an ordinance to make it easier for people to get the permits to add bedrooms to those homes. A stock of larger houses would make it easier for the city to attract industry and its employees, he believes.

"Those people need places to live, and two-bedroom houses aren't going to work," he said. "We need to see what we can do to make it easier and less cumbersome for the consumer."

Homol, 37, originally filed to run for mayor, then switched to the City Council race. He has a lot of ideas about how the city, and the Public Utilities Department in particular, should be run. He realizes that many of those ideas are the mayor's purview, not the council's.

But he could push some of his ideas as a council member. The city should rewrite its ordinances to promote more xeriscaping, or landscaping with drought-tolerant native plants rather than water-hungry grass, he says.

He also questions the city's decision to join the regional Tampa Bay Water utility.

He thinks the city should investigate building its own desalination plants so it can guarantee its own water supply. It could sell any excess water to the regional utility, he said.

"Even if it costs us 20 percent more, we are helping Tampa Bay Water, because if we are self-sufficient, we are not having to have their water come here," Homol said.

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