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    Trust a central issue in race

    Candidates differ on how to change residents' feelings toward City Hall.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Nearly all of the candidates in Tuesday's City Commission election have pledged to restore residents' trust in City Hall.

    So just how would they do that? Each candidate had a slightly different take.

    Seat 4 candidate Whitney Gray says she would encourage the city to hold a lot of public meetings about projects, particularly more informal ones where residents can meet and talk with city staff members one-on-one. The former teacher and community volunteer also would like to see commissioners engage in more conversation during meetings.

    "I think we should have a little more conversation about things so that the citizens can really see the thought processes that are going on," Gray said.

    Her opponent, former City Commissioner Lee Regulski, a retired engineer, says that he thinks city government needs to erase the perception that decisions get made "behind closed doors."

    "We need to stop rushing things like this last issue with the stadium (for the Philadelphia Phillies spring training complex)," he continued. "You can spend all the money you want on P.R., but when one thing like that occurs, it destroys all your P.R. That's really the crux of the whole thing."

    In the race for Seat 5, candidates Frank Hibbard and Lucile Casey said the city can regain the confidence of residents by closely monitoring the budget and looking for cost savings.

    "I think the No. 1 thing we can do is make sure we give straight answers to people about our budgets, our priorities, and we stick to those," said Casey, a real estate agent and former Pinellas County School Board member. "The other thing would be in being willing to talk to the people and meet with different groups, and also do everything in the sunshine."

    Hibbard said every city department should have a business plan and measurable goals, and they should constantly look for ways to be more efficient to instill trust in City Hall.

    "I also think that commissioners themselves need to be listening, having more forums and encouraging residents to speak their minds," Hibbard added. "If last summer's downtown referendum had been formulated differently, it would have passed. That was a lack of understanding what the citizens wanted."

    Bill Jonson, a retired accountant and civic activist, said the city needs to make careful decisions and commissioners need to get out in the community. If elected, he said, he would go door to door in city neighborhoods for at least one day each month to ask residents what's on their minds.

    "I think we also need to look at the way we involve the public in commission meetings," Jonson said. "We still only allow only three minutes per person. If you're representing a group, maybe we could try to give people more time to speak. For instance, in Tampa, if you have four people, they can group their time and allow one person to make a presentation."

    Jeralne Burt, the fourth candidate in the race, has said she thinks the city can do a better job listening to and serving the African-American community of North Greenwood. She could not be reached to comment Friday.

    Former Mayor Rita Garvey, a candidate for Seat 3, has 18 years' experience in public office but doesn't like the way things have been run since she left two years ago.

    "No. 1 is that I've always been, and I intend to continue to be, accessible to people. I will be out at community events," Garvey said. "That is very important to developing trust. The other thing is to make sure that you don't decide how you're going to vote before you hear the public on items."

    Garvey said she is also uncomfortable with making last-minute changes to contracts and other documents just before they are voted on.

    Her opponent, Hoyt Hamilton, a beach businessman and sports agent, said that he doesn't think there really is a big problem with accountability at City Hall. He would just continue to make sure the public is informed about what's going on and why commissioners make the decisions that they do.

    "That's a very vague term, "accountability.' I really don't see that as being a big issue," Hamilton said. "As someone who has been very familiar with the commissioners and the process they go through, I don't question their integrity or their intent."

    Election Day

    Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday for city elections. Residents across the city can cast a vote for every commissioner.

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