CLEARWATER — Scientology. Taxes. Shutting down libraries. Drilling for underground water.
What do the candidates for Clearwater City Council think about these hot topics?
Six men are running for two council seats in the March 9 election, which is just a little more than two weeks away. They have fielded dozens of wide-ranging questions from the public at a series of candidate forums. It's all been leading up to a forum that will be televised live on the city's TV channel, C-VIEW, beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday
Meanwhile, more than a fourth of the likely electorate has already voted. Nearly 3,400 Clearwater residents have sent in mail ballots, while only about 13,000 people voted in each of Clearwater's past two municipal elections.
Over the past few weeks, voter forums have been held by the Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition and by civic groups in Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Morningside.
Here are some highlights:
Gibson vs. Riordon
The sharpest exchanges have come between incumbent Paul Gibson and challenger Mike Riordon, who are both vying for Seat 5.
Riordon opposes the city's plan to drill a dozen more drinking water wells, saying it's unsafe and ineffective. He says Clearwater should instead partner with other local governments to build a seawater desalination plant. He also says Penny for Pinellas taxes should be funneled into revenue-generating projects like wind turbines on government buildings to eliminate power bills.
But an exasperated Gibson says this is all a fantasy because the city is facing severe budget cuts, and its priority must be public safety. Like the rest of the current council, Gibson voted for well drilling after being convinced the plan is sound. He says it's clear that he has more experience than his opponent.
"We need to be realistic. There's a lot of 'blue sky' stuff up here," Gibson said at one forum. "We can't be building desalination plants and putting up windmills, guys. We don't have any money."
Riordon retorted that his plan would cut costs: "I'd rather look at pie-in-the-sky results … than keep getting the pie in the face we've been getting from certain members."
A scalpel or an axe?
City budget cuts are a sure thing this summer due to a shrinking tax base stemming from declining property values. The latest estimate is that Clearwater will see a $9 million shortfall. Gibson keeps noting that, for perspective, the library system costs $5.6 million to run.
Some of the candidates running for Seat 4 have different views on how steep the cuts should be.
Conservative activist Joe Paige is campaigning on a platform of smaller government and lower taxes. He says Clearwater is on a fiscally unsustainable path. In talking about "right-sizing" city government, he is blunt about the fact that he would close several libraries and recreation centers.
"I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but the city's in trouble," he said. "It's time for the city to join the new economy. It's going to take some really tough decisions — not with a scalpel. It's going to take something larger than that."
Former two-term councilman Bill Jonson, a retired accountant, says he can't make any guarantees about keeping all the libraries open, but the city has to be thoughtful about its budget cuts.
A retired accounting executive, Jonson comes across as a policy wonk. He calls for the return of a budget task force that looked at city spending in 2007. He wants a "continuous improvement process" in which city employees suggest ways to make their jobs more efficient.
"We're not going to cut off something with a meat axe," Jonson has said on several occasions. "We're going to be very careful and deliberative with that process."
Of the other two candidates, Wayne Carothers says his 23 years as a business owner have taught him how to cut a budget. And Herb Quintero focuses on raising the city's tax revenues by making Clearwater more inviting to businesses.
All six candidates have been publicly questioned about the Church of Scientology's dominating presence downtown.
None of them have ties to Scientology. At their first forum, several of them distanced themselves from Scientology, telling the audience that they're Catholic or Episcopalian.
But they're not running anti-Scientology campaigns either. Several said Scientology has been in Clearwater for 35 years now, and people who don't like that will just have to deal with it.
Riordon said, "I don't think the Scientologists are going anywhere. If anybody has that delusion, I want to talk to you about some condos."
Gibson said, "The IRS says they're a religion, and I've got to tell you that's the end of it. There's nothing we can do to change the way things are."
Paige added, "I certainly don't believe what they believe. But this is America. They have a right to believe what they believe."
Small business woes
A major theme of this election is whether Clearwater is hostile to small businesses.
Two candidates, Quintero and Riordon, got into the race because they're store owners who have skirmished with the city over red tape, code enforcement and sign standards. Based on their personal experience, they say Clearwater is a tough place to open a business.
Quintero, who sued the city after it cracked down on a mural at his tackle shop, says stores should be allowed more flexibility in marketing themselves.
Paige, a remodeling contractor, also complains about "draconian overregulation" and suggests a rewrite of the community development code. At one forum, he displayed the U.S. Constitution and compared its size to a much larger document that a Clearwater homeowner needs to remodel their bathroom.
None of the candidates are in favor of having the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office take over law enforcement in the city. The Sheriff's Office has said it could save Clearwater $10 million a year, but the candidates doubt that it could do that without cutting the number of officers on the street.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.