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For Tampa City Council hopefuls, it comes down to a two-minute drill

TAMPA — The task: convince the people hiring you that you're perfect for the job. Now, try doing it in a mere two minutes.

That's the challenge 66 applicants vying for two vacant Tampa City Council seats will face at a public meeting Monday.

The five current council members will listen to applicants describe their qualifications, experiences and goals, then choose their new colleagues. Candidates who get three votes will win the appointments and serve until the city's March elections.

There are 39 people seeking the at-large District 3 seat vacated by Linda Saul-Sena, and another 27 eyeing South Tampa's District 4 seat last held by John Dingfelder.

Both Saul-Sena and Dingfelder abruptly left the council last month to run for the Hillsborough County Commission.

The applicants are a diverse group, including former council members, small-business owners, professionals and civic activists. On Monday, they must all convince the council that they are active in their neighborhoods, familiar with the city's most pressing challenges and capable of offering effective solutions.

Council Chairman Thomas Scott said he will pay close attention to candidates with budget experience.

"Experience is important," he said. "Are they community activists? Have they sat on public boards? Have they been to meetings, been involved with the public?"

Council member Charlie Miranda said he will assess the candidates' ability to understand problems the council faces and to come up with appropriate answers.

"I'm just looking for individuals who have common sense, who can think for themselves, look forward," Miranda said.

Council member Mary Mulhern said her vote would go to candidates who seem to embody philosophies similar to those of the council members they replace. Declining to list specific characteristics, Mulhern said serving with Saul-Sena and Dingfelder for about three years made her familiar with their general stands on issues and voting patterns.

During the past week, each council member had a chance to review applications, meet some candidates informally and take phone calls and e-mails from their supporters.

Such lobbying is typical and allows a council member to learn more about applicants before their official two-minute pitch, said former council member Shawn Harrison, who saw a similar scene unfold in 2006 when council members Kevin White and Rose Ferlita resigned to run for the County Commission. "Everybody made decisions based on their own criteria," Harrison recalled, noting that candidates should use their time at the podium to distinguish themselves from the rest.

Though consensus may be hard to reach, "the cream will rise to the top," he said.

Still, some worry the process — especially the limited speaking time — might favor insiders or those with connections to council members.

"I just hope that it doesn't become a popularity issue," said Frank Reddick, an applicant for Saul-Sena's seat, who was appointed to White's District 5 seat in 2006. "I'm hoping that it'll be done strictly on credentials and experience."

Reddick, who is president of the Northview Hills Civic Association and the Sickle Cell Association, said given the time limit, prior political experience and community activism are likely to be decisive factors.

But Brian Donovan, a former sales representative who has applied for Dingfelder's seat, said the time was sufficient to let the council know why he would be the right choice even though he has never held public office. He said his flexibility; passion for issues such as economic development, affordable housing and public safety; and good communication skills set him apart.

Some of those involved with the process were divided over whether winning an appointment is likely to give a candidate an edge in the March elections.

Lynette Judge, 45, a social worker from East Tampa who is running in March, said if appointed, she would gain a distinct advantage over inexperienced candidates.

"It will put me ahead of the curve," she said. "There'll be no on-the-job training."

But council member Mulhern said she would be less inclined to choose someone who had filed to run in March or expressed an interest in doing so publicly or to her.

"It's not fair," she said, "Especially given the long term that they'll have. This process is not as representative as an election. … Incumbency is a huge advantage."

She said, however, that if other council members did not make a candidate's future aspirations a factor in their decision, she would vote along with them to choose the best applicant.

Ultimately, the council's decision will depend on candidates' overall appeal.

Members will consider "the sincerity of the voice and the body language of the person," Miranda said. "It would put people that are more introverted at a disadvantage. Two minutes could be a deal breaker or a deal maker. It depends on how your present yourself."

Mulhern said candidates will have just the right amount of time to make a good impression.

"It's worked in the past," she said of the appointment process. "Any more than two minutes and people won't be able to concentrate."

Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or njayakrishna@sptimes.com.

For Tampa City Council hopefuls, it comes down to a two-minute drill 07/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 11:32pm]
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