ST. PETE BEACH — Tuesday's election result had one clear message: It's a "new day" in this contentious and lawsuit-prone city.
On March 25, the city's first female mayor, Maria Lowe, will take the gavel to lead a city that has been and still is deeply divided over development issues. She will be joined on the commission by political newcomers Terri Finnerty and Greg Premer.
All three pledged throughout their campaigns to work to heal the city, even though some were supported by pro-growth hotel owners and others by proponents of limited development.
"We still have a division in this city. Maria's goal is to bring the divisions together," acknowledged defeated incumbent Mayor Steve McFarlin, who reached out to Lowe after the election to offer his support as she leads the city.
"I made it clear during my campaign that I am not against anyone, I am for the city," Lowe said. Lowe, who moved to St. Pete Beach less than two years ago, is not identified with the city's bitter factions and drew supporters from both sides.
"This was the beauty of my campaign and a demonstration of how we can cross the divide," she said.
Finnerty campaigned as well on a theme of "openness, fairness and a pledge to listen to everybody."
She said she is still "flying high" about her election win and "can't wait" to be part of the new commission's decisions.
As a state-certified mediator, her role may become even more important if the city is forced to rewrite its comprehensive plan.
Hoteliers, who supported Finnerty's opponent, Commissioner Lorraine Huhn, and McFarlin, did post one win Tuesday with Premer's election to the commission.
Premer said during his campaign that he clearly got the message from voters that "they want the lawsuits to end."
He favors more hotel development, but says he also is strongly opposed to "gigantic hotels and condos" on the beach.
"The city has been stagnant for about 10 years. We have a pretty good team (on the new commission), and I do think this is a new day," Premer said.
That new team will include a female majority, possibly for the first time, on the panel as Lowe and Finnerty join Commissioner Melinda Pletcher.
"I am hopeful that we will be able to address some of the issues that are unique to our district," Pletcher said Friday. Both she and Lowe live in the southern part of the city that includes Vina Del Mar and Pass-a-Grille.
As for the three women who now could potentially control major decisions, Lowe insisted "it's the person and not the gender that makes the difference." Still, she is "proud that women are so well represented" on the new commission and drew a sharp comparison to Afghanistan, where she recently served in the Army.
"Women were persecuted there for trying to join the political process, so this is very personal for me. It shows how much human rights are valued in my country," Lowe said.
One of the first issues on the agenda will be a consultant's proposed plan for regeneration and redevelopment of downtown and the Corey Avenue district.
The city is also nervously awaiting a ruling from the 2nd District Court of Appeal on the controversial comprehensive plan that could force reconsideration of development regulations.
The plan has been a source of legal contention since it was first discussed nearly a decade ago — and to date has cost the city nearly $2 million in legal fees.
One of the residents whose lawsuits helped to run up those fees, Jim Anderson, was a losing candidate in Tuesday's election.
"It was clear to me when knocking on doors that people want the lawsuits to go away, they want the city to get along," Anderson said Friday. "The residents saw me as part of the problem and they also punished the incumbents for refusing to negotiate."
Another issue that could arise during the next commission's term is how the group will get along with City Manager Mike Bonfield, who often became the target of the city's political factions.
"I am aware that opinions of his performance are sharply polarized," said Lowe, who has already met with Bonfield and said she hopes the commission can set "clear and achievable goals to move the city forward.
"Neither the commission nor the city manager can do this alone," Lowe said.