SAFETY HARBOR — Mayor Joe Ayoub and former mayor and mayoral candidate Andy Steingold criticized each other's records as they and other Safety Harbor City Commission candidates attempted to distinguish themselves from their opponents at a candidate forum last week.
The forum, moderated by Marti Folwell of the North Pinellas League of Women Voters, drew a crowd so large, some audience members stood i the meeting room and others gathered in the lobby of City Hall to watch the proceedings on a television.
Ayoub fired the first shot. He stressed during his opening statement that being mayor is his "No. 1 choice" and said he is looking forward to serving a full three-year term — a slap at Steingold, who resigned the office mid-term in January 2013 to run unsuccessfully for county judge.
Steingold, a personal injury attorney, wasted no time slapping back. In his opening statement, he contrasted his time as mayor, when he said he "always listened to the will of the majority of the people," to the past year under Ayoub.
"It has become apparent that the will of the people, the will of the majority of the constituents, is not being answered," Steingold said.
That was a reference to the City Commission's approval of the Richman Group's controversial plan to build apartments on the former Firmenich Citrus Center site and the commission's initial decision to move this year's city election from March to November to piggyback on county elections.
During the forum, Steingold unveiled what he is calling the Safety Harbor Preservation Act, a plan he said he developed to "maintain the small-town charm" of Safety Harbor and prevent it from becoming "a concrete jungle."
That drew a pointed question from Ayoub, CFO of tech company Data Blue, who asked why, if Steingold cared so much about preservation, he didn't unveil the act during his tenure on the commission, and why he resigned early. Ayoub earned a warning from Folwell about personal attacks and staying on topic.
Commissioner Nancy Besore, who is the third candidate for mayor, touted her record.
"I'm not saying I'm a miracle worker," said Besore, a high school social studies teacher, listing items she accomplished while a city commissioner. "I've been your voice, you've come to me ... I listen to you, I care about what's bothering you."
The first question asked of candidates concerned the future of the Waterfront Park. Seat 4 candidate Carlos Diaz, who owns his own logistics company, said his main concern is working with the community to come up with a plan.
"I want to stress one basic principle: Everything around here in the city is for the community" including the waterfront, he said.
Seat 3 candidate Andy Zodrow said the park's development was what inspired him to run.
"I would like to see the Waterfront Park developed in a very low-intensity manner," he said.
Nearly all the candidates echoed Zodrow's desire for limited development, rejecting the idea of having a restaurant at the entrance to the park.
"One of the things we must do is treasure this piece of property," said Seat 4 candidate Ray Irvin, a former public works director in Indianapolis. "We will never, ever get another chance to get that kind of property on the shores of Tampa Bay for the rest of the life of the city."
The mayoral candidates, though, disagreed on the timing of park improvements. Ayoub said he wants to start the work this year using money the city allocated for the park. Besore said she'd rather see "slow attention to the property," and Steingold said he wants development to progress over the next 10-25 years.
The issues of tree preservation and flooding brought impassioned responses from the candidates. Besore again referenced her record, citing numerous instances in which she said she helped residents alleviate flood concerns.
Zodrow said the nature of his work — he is an environmental attorney for Hillsborough County — makes him an expert of sorts on tree and flood issues. He said he wants to see the city improve its floodplain management so the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal body that issues flood insurance and just recently raised rates in flood-prone areas to avoid insolvency, will reduce premiums for residents.
The tree issue provided Steingold an opportunity to deliver a blow of his own to Ayoub.
"I think he's for just pulling all the trees down and letting developers dictate to us what we're going to get, versus telling the developers what we the people … want for the city," Steingold said, because Ayoub voted against the city's tree ordinance when it was approved a few years back.
Ayoub later said he voted against it because the proposal did not align with recommendations of tree experts.
Candidates had the most diverse opinions, though, when debating the virtues of the city's new garbage program, which added single-stream recycling and reduced garbage pickup to once a week.
Seat 3 candidate Dean Harmeson, an intelligence contractor for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, had a favorable opinion of the program, which has saved the city's garbage trucks 77 trips so far, translating into a reduction in fuel consumption and air pollution.
"Obviously, the trash pickup program is good for the environment, it's encouraging and motivating people to recycle, and reducing the amount of trash we have to take to the landfill," Harmeson said, "and I am happy that we've been able to make that a success."
Steingold said he was concerned that trash pickup has been reduced to one day a week, down from two, and yet fees have not been reduced.
Besore said she would like to appropriate any savings associated with the reduction in pickup to offset other town fees, like the street-light fee. "When we conserve in some areas, we can use that money to reduce fees in other areas," she said.
The city election is scheduled for March 11 to coincide with the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
Josh Solomon can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. On Twitter @JSolomonTIMES