SAFETY HARBOR — Four candidates, including two newcomers to city politics, will be competing for two seats on the City Commission in the Jan. 31 election.
Incumbent Commissioner Mary Lynda Williams has drawn a challenge from Cliff Merz, an engineer and faculty researcher at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.
Incumbent Nancy Besore is being challenged by Elise Vinson, who was an accountant for the city of Safety Harbor for 22 years before retiring in March.
A third incumbent commissioner, Joe Ayoub, automatically won another three-year term when no one filed to run against him.
The campaign season is compressed this year because the City Commission decided to hold the election in conjunction with the presidential primary on Jan. 31 to save money. City elections are normally in March.
The deadline for city residents to register to vote is Jan. 3.
Williams and Besore said they were surprised to draw challengers, and they are hurrying to put together campaigns and come up with cash for fliers and mailings. Mail ballots will go out in just over two weeks.
"I didn't know there was anybody unhappy with my performance, but she (Vinson) thinks I need to go," said Besore, who is nearing the end of her first term in office.
"I did not anticipate challengers this year," said Williams, who has been on the commission since February 2008.
Both incumbents said they feel the current commission has kept the city financially fit despite the recession. Commissioners say they have not raised the city tax rate, have continued to improve parks and streets, and have worked to attract more visitors to downtown to support local merchants.
"I do my homework," Williams said. "I try to ask good questions. I try to make the fair decision and … keep my emotions out of it. I have proven leadership. As far as I know, everything is running well in the city."
Williams, 62, is retired from Honeywell, where she worked for 34 years. She is the city's representative to the Suncoast League of Cities and serves on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Advisory Board.
Besore, 54, who first ran for the commission in 2009 after fighting against a development plan in her neighborhood, said she has become "the consummate volunteer" while on the City Commission, attending every event she can and talking with people on the street.
"It's sort of like being in Cheers," she said. "The recognition is fabulous. And it feels good to be able to do things to support Safety Harbor."
A teacher at Armwood High School in Seffner, Besore said she was "so timid" when she first got on the commission that her voice shook.
"I didn't expect the terror to turn to joy," she said. "I feel like I have really blossomed with this opportunity the people have given me."
The two challengers didn't criticize their opponents in recent interviews, but instead said they just want to be more involved in their city.
"I am ready to make a contribution now. I can make a difference," said Besore's challenger, Elise Vinson, 56, a New Jersey native and accountant who has lived in the city for 24 years and spent 22 years working in the city's finance department.
During those years, Vinson said she saw ways that resources could be used more efficiently and customer service could be improved. Those will be her priorities if elected, and she'd also like to work on attracting new businesses to Main Street, she said.
Cliff Merz, Williams' opponent, is a friend of Mayor Andy Steingold, who got him interested in city affairs. The two met through their children, who are friends.
A Wisconsin native who moved to Florida in 1982 to go to college, Merz has a degree in ocean engineering and a Ph.D in renewable energy.
Merz, 51, calls Safety Harbor "a nice family town" and said he wants to keep it that way. He said he's long had an interest in getting involved in government.
He has a special motivation: concern about his children's future. A father of five, Merz said he wonders how today's young people will make it — where and how they will get jobs and support their families. If elected, he wants to work on strengthening the connections between business and education so young people will have a better opportunity to prepare for the job market and succeed there.