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In a three-way race for St. Petersburg City Council seat, candidates differ on little

District 1 hopefuls Charlie Gerdes, Robert A. “Bob” Kersteen and Joshua B. Shulman, from left, talk to voters on Tuesday night.

DIRK SHADD | Times

District 1 hopefuls Charlie Gerdes, Robert A. “Bob” Kersteen and Joshua B. Shulman, from left, talk to voters on Tuesday night.

ST. PETERSBURG — There might be three people running in the only primary race for City Council, but there are hardly three diverging opinions among them.

Or even two. On most major issues facing Charles Gerdes, Robert Kersteen and Joshua Shulman in the their race for the District 1 seat, their opinions are indistinguishable from one another.

They do differ on some key points. Support red-light cameras as a way to make streets safer? Then Gerdes could be your guy.

Concerned about dwindling city services and don't mind paying higher tax rates to support them? Shulman, then, might get your vote.

Think cutting more government services and costs is the best way to ride out the recession? Say hello to Kersteen.

Still, it's how often they agree that's most striking about this race — and that was apparent during a League of Women Voters candidate forum Tuesday night.

All three praised Mayor Bill Foster for his handling of the shooting deaths of three police officers earlier this year. They all promised to support a new police station and all public safety budget needs. None of them support the city's plan to allow digital billboards in the city. All want to stop paying car allowances for top administrators and managers. All favor same-sex domestic partner benefits for firefighters. Each one wants to end the city's stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium. All support the city's recent treatment of homeless people.

More notable for the voters of District 1, all three criticized a recent settlement with Raytheon Co., which owns a facility blamed for a toxic plume that has become a defining issue for the 29,000 residents who live in the city's western and most suburban neighborhoods. The settlement, which has the defense contractor giving affected home­owners $2,500, was lambasted even by Gerdes, who worked for the company from 1978 to 1997.

"It was an embarrassment," Gerdes said. "I spent 19 years working for Raytheon, and it's a wonderful company. But the settlement was a big letdown."

Rather than stress major differences on issues, the candidates emphasize varying styles.

Gerdes, 54, is a lawyer who says accessibility is his strength. He vows he will communicate with his constituents more than "anyone has ever seen before." He promises public town meetings every other week and to personally answer all e-mails and phone calls.

"I want to reconnect government to the people," Gerdes said. "I'm overwhelmed by the sense of disgust out there."

Gerdes is not new to politics. He was the Pinellas County fundraising chairman for Bill McBride's failed 2002 bid for governor. He lost in a 2006 race for the Florida House.

Although he touts himself as an independent force who can be an effective check on Foster, he says he only has disagreed with Foster on the handling of the Rays and that he wants him to be more transparent. He's the only candidate to side with Foster in his support of red-light cameras.

Kersteen, 74, is another experienced politico who served on the council from 1995 to 2001. He stresses his skill as a "consensus builder" who has the corporate experience necessary to cut costs in city government, especially at the top. He had been an executive with GTE Mobilnet when he was first elected. Although he said he wouldn't let his city work conflict with his job, which dealt with quelling public opposition to the placement of cell phone towers, it later became an issue.

Now retired, Kersteen said he'll force the Rays to open their books to show how much money they make or lose during any discussions about a new stadium. Like Gerdes, he doesn't support property tax increases to make up the budget shortfall.

Shulman, 35, is a financial consultant and a newcomer to politics. He urges better investment in long-term projects and exploring new revenue, including raising property taxes, to plug holes in the budget.

When Gerdes and Kersteen said code enforcement needed to improve, Shulman said that until new revenue could be found, criticizing departments for a fall-off in services wasn't necessarily productive.

"Codes is suffering because they've had a 25 percent reduction in size," he said. "We need a better budget approach. Without that, nothing else matters."

The last time there was a primary in an off-year — when there wasn't a mayor's race or a presidential race — was in 2007, when 11 percent of voters turned out. Already, as of Tuesday, of the 7,327 of the ballots mailed out to voters in District 1, 1,387 had been returned, or nearly 20 percent.

Only residents in District 1 can vote in the Aug. 30 primary. The top two finishers will face off in the Nov. 8 general election, along with the three other council races in which incumbents face only one challenger. The city has eight council members who earn a $38,800 salary and serve four years as part of the city's legislative branch, which has the power to approve or reject the mayor's budgets.

District 1 incumbent Herb Polson announced he wasn't seeking re-election earlier this year.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

In a three-way race for St. Petersburg City Council seat, candidates differ on little 08/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:22am]
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