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Dueling civic groups target St. Pete Beach commissioners

The Hatfields and McCoys could have learned a few things about feuding Tuesday night at the regular meeting of the City Commission.

Members of prodevelopment group Save Our Little Village and their antidevelopment foes, Citizens for Responsible Growth, took potshots at each other during a meeting that may be the last for some commissioners whose terms are coming to an end.

The hubbub was a runup to a candidates' forum scheduled for the following evening and the March 11 election, which could change the board's attitude toward development.

Much of the verbal battle centered on the candidates for mayor: Michael Finnerty, the current vice mayor, and Ed Ruttencutter, District 3 commissioner.

The crossfire came early in the meeting, during a period reserved for public comments.

One of the first speakers, Chet Chmielewski, referred to Ruttencutter, who was elected to the commission in 2004, as someone "who has hidden his life, his lifestyle and important facts about his life from the public and this has made the elections a fraud."

He called on Ruttencutter to "make a complete disclosure about his life and his lifestyle."

Ruttencutter "abused" business people who appeared before the commission, Chmielewski charged. "A lot of them think that he has left-wing tendencies. Many of them come right and say they think he's a communist."

That comment drew laughter and jeers from the audience.

"I thank you for letting that happen, Mr. Mayor," said Ruttencutter, addressing Ward Friszolowski. "I'm sure you would for anyone else, including yourself."

On the other hand, Finnerty was accused of "turning your back on all your former supporters" by audience member Maria Urban.

She said Finnerty was the only commissioner who has not given a deposition in the suit filed by Save Our Little Village. "It makes people wonder what are you trying to hide."

The progrowth group has filed suit against the city to have six development-related petitions placed on the ballot.

Urban charged that Ruttencutter was the only candidate who didn't talk to developers and voted against the development of condominiums at Dolphin Village.

Finnerty replied that "some of the things you stated are not accurate. I voted 'no' for the project, so I don't know what she's talking about."

Bill Pyle, a major supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth, said he also was "very disappointed" in Finnerty and accused the vice mayor of being "the SOLV (Save Our Little Village) candidate." Ruttencutter was "the hardest working man on this commission," Pyle said.

Peter Roos defended Finnerty, declaring the vice mayor "has seen the light" and is "a free-thinker now."

The evening's attacks on commission members were "inconceivable," Deborah Schechner said.

"This is not the type of city we need," said Schechner, a close ally of Commissioner Linda Chaney and a Citizens for Responsible Growth sympathizer.

If the progrowth group's candidates are elected, Schechner said "we're just going to have the constant bitterness, constant name calling, the constant vile, nasty stuff."

Commissioners Chaney and Harry Metz also took fire. Resident Ray Thibodeau said Chaney and Metz "have failed the public by refusing to see past the narrow partisanship of their CRG (Citizens for Responsible Growth) roots and function independently as fair, neutral minded city commissioners."

He presented documents described as ethics complaints against Metz and Chaney. Thibodeau said the documents include a letter from Thomas Reese, investigator with the Florida Commission on Ethics "which states that he has found these complaints to be sufficient for investigation."

The only one not targeted was Mayor Friszolowski, who is stepping down when his term ends March 18.

The partisan comments stood in contrast to a presentation earlier in the meeting, when the commission received a check for $10,000 from Save Our Little Village. The group raised the money in a fund drive to purchase and install an electronic overhead message board that would announce upcoming civic events.

"This kind of enforces the profile of who we are and what we are," said the group's chairwoman, Lorraine Huhn. "We're generous, we love the city and we do whatever we can in ways and hopefully soon in big ways."

Huhn expressed a conciliatory tone as she told the commission, "All of us together, regardless of how we feel today and might have felt yesterday, can work together and make wonderful things happen to the city we love."

Dueling civic groups target St. Pete Beach commissioners 03/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:20am]
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