Safety Harbor candidates tout commitment, diverge on experience

Published February 15 2018

BY PIPER CASTILLO

Times Staff Writer

SAFETY HARBOR — The two candidates tout their commitment to the city and their families as well as their involvement with their communities and church. However, the two men, incumbent Cliff Merz, 57, and challenger Spencer Bell, 33, vying for City Commission Seat 2, vary in background and interests.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In Safety Harbor, former commissioner Nancy Besore faces incumbent Scott Long for Seat 1 Downtown

This is the first time Bell, owner of Bellwether Strategic Government Consulting, a 1-year old business based in the city, is running for political office. However, the University of Florida graduate has a resume that includes stints as the regional director for the Republican Party of Florida, the deputy finance director for the David Jolly for Congress campaign as well and campaign manager for state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa.

It was last November, during a public meeting discussing the potential hiring of a community development director, that Bell decided to run. After listening to the discussion among the five city commissioners that led to the decision to not add the position, Bell was frustrated. He believed the five men could have worked in a more timely, organized way, he recalled.

"(The City Commission) has a lack and neglect of general adherence to basic Robert’s Rules of order.’’

Bell believes his addition to the commission would ensure it "functions effectively and efficiently,’’ he said. "Instead of having to learn as I go, what I specialize in my business is exactly the definition of a city commissioner.’’

Merz, who received the endorsement of the Safety Harbor Professional Fire Fighters Local 2267 and has been a city commissioner since 2012, believes the current commission’s "variety of backgrounds’’ has served it well.

A Safety Harbor resident since 1998, Merz is a faculty research engineer at University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in St Petersburg.

"We bring our collective experience to bear when making a decision,’’ he said. "I have worked with engineers and scientists so when it comes to some of the decision making, I bring that engineering background, which I think is valuable.

A strong advocate for Home Rule, in 2014 the father of five received the Florida League Home Rule Hero award. And, along with his current involvement with Leadership Pinellas’s 2018 class, he also helps coordinate the city’s participation in the Pinellas County School’s Executive Internship Program.

"In the last two terms, one of the things I have tried to do is strengthen that connection between the workforce and the community,’’ he said. "Residents are concerned about earning a living and having a dependable job and the more the city can help with that, in different ways, through economic development, or through things like the intern program, the better. ... If we can do this by helping than the people will more likely have the ability to give back, to provide their gifts to us in the community.’’

Both candidates believe city officials need to show caution as they move forward with Safety Harbor’s growth.

Bell would like to see "development dollars be spread north and south and not just in downtown. My perception on development is that there are certain projects that are a high priority, like Waterfront Park and Main Street. They have taken front and center stage, above and beyond all other issues within the city.’’

Merz stressed he has been on the commission for most of the Waterfront Park development.

"And I do hope to have the opportunity to continue with the work on that,’’ he said. "It is a gem for our city.’’

Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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