ST. PETE BEACH — With a four-way race for mayor and a former commissioner vying to get his seat back, the city's municipal election in March promises a battle that could put an end, as much as is possible here, to the city's development wars.
Amid these highly contested elections, one commissioner, Jim Parent, faces no opposition for the second time and will automatically serve another two-year term representing District 2.
"The competition in the other races could signal where the majority of the people's thinking is," Parent said.
Mayor Mike Finnerty, 62, who is running for re-election, faces three diverse opponents:
• Will Jacoby, 60, chairman of the city's Planning Board who ran a failed bid for the commission in 2004;
• Bruce Kadoura, 63, a political newcomer whose lawsuits over the Comprehensive Plan have contributed to the city's mounting development-related legal fees, now at nearly $1-million; and
• Steve McFarlin, 54, whom Finnerty fired last month from the Board of Adjustment when he announced he was running for the mayoral post.
"The fact that there are so many candidates running against me proves that I am the voice of the people," Finnerty said Thursday.
His opponents will "regress" the city back to the height of its development wars, he said, adding that he hopes to "continue to improve the city's quality of life."
When Jacoby previously ran for the commission, his opponent at the time, Deborah Martohue, challenged his residency, noting that he was simultaneously running for election in Kentucky.
After investigating, the city qualified Jacoby to run, largely based on his affidavit that he was unable to take his name off the Kentucky ballot after he declared legal residency in St. Pete Beach.
Since then, Jacoby has been active in the city, serving on the Planning Board.
If elected, he said he wants the city staff to modify the current Comprehensive Plan so that the city's development can move ahead.
"All of this fighting has accomplished nothing except legal bills and more animosity," said Jacoby, who added that he would use "common sense" and his business experience to lead the city.
Kadoura, a retired accountant, expects his bid for the mayoral post to be a "long, hard-fought ride," especially since his lawsuits against the city are likely to be ongoing, at least in appeal, during the election.
He stressed he is not opposed to development and that the city does need "sprucing up."
He defended his legal actions against the city, claiming that then city officials "tried to trick the voters" by not telling them the 2008 Comprehensive Plan involved increases in height and density.
McFarlin, a Save Our Little Village supporter who retired several years ago as president of Dew Cadillac, says the city's controversial Comprehensive Plan is "balanced" and should be put into effect.
"There have been a lot of scary rumors of high-rises that are just not true," he said. "The political and legal fights of the past few years have taken St. Pete Beach out of circulation and created gridlock. I think people are starting to see the facts. Our hotels need updating."
McFarlin said his long love for St. Pete Beach and his business background will enable him to offer the city a strong vision for the future.
In the District 4 race, sitting Commissioner Beverly Garnett, 54, will face former Commissioner Harry Metz, 70.
Garnett was elected unopposed two years ago when Metz decided not to run for re-election. She was reported ill and could not be reached for comment.
"I am tired of what the commission is doing," Metz said. "The people are not being taken care of." He wants the city to lower property tax rates and pay less attention to "hoteliers and large businesses."
The District 4 race, in particular, promises to be a re-run of the city's development wars.
Metz was an organizer and supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth which successfully fought for residents to have the right to vote on changes in building height and density and to the city's Comprehensive Plan and development regulations.
Garnett was an organizer and supporter of the rival political action group, SOLV, which successfully sought voter approval for a new Comprehensive Plan that increased height and density for hotels, as well as establishing new and/or revised development districts throughout the city.
For the past two years, the city has been embroiled in a series of lawsuits challenging the Comprehensive Plan. They were filed by CRG supporter Bill Pyle, as well as by Kadoura and resident Richard McCormick.
Pyle recently won his suit against the ballot language used in the 2008 referendum. As a result, Circuit Judge David Demers invalidated the plan, throwing out the voter approved development rules.
Demers is expected to rule by the end of the month on a case filed by Kadoura challenging several aspects of the plan.
Deputy City Clerk Pam Prell said she is not aware of any prohibitions in state law that would block Kadoura from running, but said she would check with the city's attorney.
Neither is there anything in the city's charter or ordinances, she said, that prevents a resident who is actively suing the city from being a candidate.
The charter only states that a sitting commissioner cannot vote on any issue that would result in a private economic gain. And it says no city officer can represent any person, group or corporation in any legal action taken against the city.