CLEARWATER — They say you can't fight City Hall. But two of the six people running for City Council are owners of small businesses who launched their candidacies because they've been skirmishing with the city over red tape, code enforcement and sign standards.
Based on their personal experience, they say Clearwater's rules are unreasonably strict and that the city is a tough place to open a business.
This is a notable change of pace for election season because this hasn't been a big issue in previous Clearwater races. But, judging from these two contenders' platforms, voters are going to get an earful of this during a slew of candidate forums next month.
The candidates in question are Herb Quintero, who famously fought the city over a fish mural at his tackle shop, which recently closed; and Mike Riordon, a bicycle shop owner who's frustrated that he's forbidden from displaying rental bikes outside his business alongside the Pinellas Trail.
They might be long shots. Incumbent Paul Gibson and former councilman Bill Jonson are generally viewed as the likely favorites to win the two council seats that are up for grabs. Candidates Wayne Carothers and Joe Paige are ramping up their campaigns as well.
Also, Clearwater's budget woes will no doubt be the dominant issue on the campaign trail.
But with about six weeks to go before the March 9 election, Quintero and Riordon are using their own examples to take issue with how Clearwater deals with businesses.
Fish and barbecue
Quintero, 41, repeatedly butted heads with code enforcement after opening the Complete Angler, an upscale bait and tackle shop on a rundown stretch of N Fort Harrison Avenue, in 2008.
It recently went out of business. He blames the city: "My sign was so small that people never saw it. And they wouldn't allow me to have barbecue there."
He got fined because the store had a mural depicting game fish. The city claimed it was an unauthorized sign, in violation of Clearwater code. Quintero eventually prevailed in court.
Barbecue brought in more customers, he said, but the city told him not to cook on a grill outside his store. So he started cooking off-site and serving food at the shop. "We'd burn off the grill in the parking lot to let people know there was barbecue there," he said, but officials told him he couldn't keep equipment outdoors or use the grill as a display.
"If we allow businesses the flexibility to market themselves, they're going to prosper," Quintero said.
Bikes and signs
Riordon, 50, doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a one-note candidate. But he entered the race because of roadblocks he ran into after opening his business, City Cycle and Supply, in 2007.
He's trying to display rental bikes on a gravel space beside his shop at 700 Court St. along the Pinellas Trail. In Dunedin, Largo, Seminole or Tarpon Springs, he says, this would be no problem.
He also says it took six months to get permission to put up a freestanding sign on Court Street. At first, he was told "No" because his building is too close to a downtown street. But he says officials were mistakenly measuring the distance from his porch, when the code refers to the distance between the street and a "weight-bearing exterior wall."
After all that, he had to drop the sign from 8 feet high to 6 feet.
"The city of Clearwater put me on the ballot," Riordon said. "If I billed them for the amount of time I wasted, I'd own two bike shops."
The city's view
The city hears the complaints.
Officials say they understand that some businesses get frustrated with Clearwater's rules, but that many of those rules were originally crafted based on what the public and elected policymakers wanted. The purpose is to reduce clutter and set higher standards for how things look all over the city.
"Where do you draw the line?" said planning director Michael Delk. "These are not easy issues. It's a challenge to meet every need."
In the case of Quintero, the city will soon consider changing its policy on businesses that display murals. And Quintero's barbecue grill likely ran afoul of codes intended to discourage the outdoor display of goods. Delk said: "You don't look around Clearwater and find itinerant business people in parking lots selling rugs."
The City Council also has told staffers to review Riordon's case and see if there's a way to let him display bikes alongside the trail.
Others in the race are staking out different territory.
Riordon is running for Seat 5 against incumbent Paul Gibson, a beach Realtor who has a reputation as a fiscal conservative.
Gibson, 61, thinks the city's codes are too strict, but he's focused on budget cuts: "My No. 1 priority is the crisis the city is facing with declining revenues. I don't believe any other issue is remotely close to that challenge."
Quintero is running for the vacant Seat 4 against Carothers, Jonson and Paige.
Jonson, 65, a former two-term councilman and anti-billboard crusader, says his priorities are the budget, neighborhoods and business development. He recalled that Clearwater's strict sign ordinance was adopted under former City Manager Mike Roberto.
"It had a lot of support at that time," he said. "There are regulations because the community as a whole has said that seems to make sense."
Paige, a conservative activist and residential remodeling contractor, is calling for a smaller government, less regulation and a review of city codes.
"The city has no role dictating the size and scope and color and shape of your building," said Paige, 52. "They hold no stake in a successful financial outcome for your business."
Carothers holds the opposite view from Quintero and Riordon.
"I have nothing but praise for the city. I've worked with the city for the last 23 years pulling permits," said the 58-year-old air conditioning contractor. "My goal is to be a fresh set of ears and listen to the people's concerns."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.