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Commission race gets under way

The three seats up for election in March have attracted 10 prospects in an unusually early start.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Captivated by this year's contentious debate over the city's redevelopment, 10 candidates have already picked up paperwork to run for three City Commission seats up for grabs in March.

Anyone who wants to run has to qualify by filling out forms and submitting 250 petition cards by Jan. 26.

The potential list of candidates includes political oldtimers such as former Mayor Rita Garvey and former Commissioner Lee Regulski.

The ballot also could include at least six people making their first bid for office. Members of this new political generation say they were galvanized by the debate on redevelopment, including the nasty fight over this summer's rejected $300-million downtown renewal plan.

Among the newcomers are people such as Whitney Gray, a mother of three, former schoolteacher and past president of the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin.

"I started thinking about doing this in February and March, when the rumblings about the referendum about downtown were beginning," said Gray, a Clearwater native whose roots stretch back to McMullen family pioneers.

"I thought, gosh, this sounds like a good idea, and I really want to get involved and help shape the direction that this city goes in. But the citizens didn't want that plan, so now we have to figure out what's the next step."

Another first-time candidate will be Bill Jonson, a longtime citizen activist who successfully led a petition drive to have the city enact laws to phase out billboard clutter on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Active in several local civic groups, Jonson disapproved of emotional personal attacks during this summer's downtown referendum battle.

"I thought, maybe I'm the kind of person who we sort of need to get involved in city government, and stand in the middle, and make sure everyone's question get answered," said Jonson, a retired computer systems manager for Honeywell Inc.

When the first day to grab election paperwork finally came on Sept. 14, Jonson was waiting outside at City Hall at 8 a.m. for the City Clerk's office to be unlocked.

Such enthusiastic interest in an election that is still a half a year away is startling to people in the city's political inner circle, such as local development attorney Ed Armstrong, who has engineered many successful local campaigns.

"I'm looking at my calendar in September and wondering if I'm in the Twilight Zone," said Armstrong, who guesses the candidate pool could overflow with 15 contenders by next spring. "Never before have we had this many people come out so early. The rule of thumb has been you announce sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It truly is unprecedented."

Armstrong credits this year's debate about redevelopment for sparking interest in city government. Also, he notes, the three seats on the commission up for grabs make for a majority block -- the power to swing the city's future in any direction.

The three seats are opening because Commissioner Bob Clark is not seeking re-election, J.B. Johnson is term-limited and cannot run and Ed Hooper resigned his seat effective Nov. 7 to run for the Florida House, although he lost the Republican primary.

On March 13, residents will choose two commissioners from the list of candidates to serve three-year terms and one person to serve out Hooper's one-year term.

Some potential candidates such as Garvey are not ready to officially launch campaigns.

Garvey, who was ousted from her 18-year stint in office by Mayor Brian Aungst in 1999, said she is still lining up support before she will officially announce. She is considering running for the one-year seat and then possibly trying for mayor again in 2002.

Another possible -- but not absolutely certain -- candidate is Arlita Hallam, a high-level Clearwater city administrator who has been asked to resign by the end of this week.

The other potential contenders for commission are:

Lee Regulski, former city commissioner. Regulski was an avid opponent of the city's downtown redevelopment plans this summer and is a member of Save the Bayfront.

Lucile Casey, a former Pinellas County School Board member defeated in her recent bid for Pinellas County Commission. Casey is a real estate agent.

Bob Bickerstaff, who ran a flying school at the city's municipal airport. A supporter of the failed downtown redevelopment plan, he would be making his 15th bid for city office.

Frank Hibbard, an investment officer with Huntington Bank. Hibbard sits on a board for Florida State University and said he has the skill to hammer out compromises.

Hoyt Hamilton, a sports agent whose family operates the city's South Beach Pavilion concessions and the Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach. He would run for the one-year term.

George Athanasiou, who has a cleaning service and a Dunedin cafe. Athanasiou said the redevelopment debate piqued his interest in the commission job.

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