South Pasadena election features familiar faces

Published February 28 2018


Times Correspondents

SOUTH PASADENA — When voters elect two city commissioners on March 13, they don’t need to worry about choosing a political novice.

All four candidates have already served on the commission.

Incumbents Lari Johnson (who has served for three years) and Gail Neidinger (six) share the ballot with former Mayor Dan Calabria (three) and former Commissioner Arthur Penny (eight).

The two top vote-getters will serve three-year terms at $7,600 a year.

There is a me-too ring to the platforms of the candidates, who all pledge to watch spending carefully, build a new fire station (or extensively renovate the current one), and encourage business development in the tiny town (population 5,000).

All four also favor having either a professional city administrator or city manager to run the day-to-day operations of the town, which is the only municipality in Florida where elected city commissioners still divide those duties.

But some intrigue bubbles beneath the surface of the low-key campaign.

Neidinger and Penny acknowledge that — unofficially at least — they are campaigning in tandem. And like Johnson, they make no secret of their distaste for Calabria, whose term as mayor in 2013-2016 was marked by disputes with his four colleagues.

Calabria, 81, grew up in New York City, graduated from St. John’s University and eventually made his way into the mutual fund industry, first with Dreyfus Funds and then Oppenheimer Management.

He moved to Pinellas County in 1986 to become president and CEO of Templeton Funds Management Corp. and settled six years later in South Pasadena, where he became a government watchdog and political activist.

He ran unsuccessfully for the commission in 1996, 2011 and 2017, but prevailed in a campaign for mayor in 2013. Neither his three defeats nor his tumultuous term as mayor deterred him from running again this year.

He bristles in recounting how many commissioners have gotten into office without an opponent and vows to keep running "to make sure that an election is held."

People often mistake his determination for rudeness, he says. He is so intent on achieving his goals that "sometimes it comes across as being rude or insensitive."

Johnson, 71, is a University of Florida graduate who worked in public relations for many years. Among her career highlights, she says, was a stint as director of public relations for Special Olympics programs in Washington from 1989 to 1994.

In Pinellas, she has been a board member of the Marine Exploration Center (formerly Secrets of the Seas), which expects to open soon at the Port of St. Petersburg, since 2002.

She won her commission seat without opposition in 2015 and is one of 13 elected officials who serve on Forward Pinellas, the county’s land-use and transportation planning agency.

In her campaign, Johnson stresses her support of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach via Pasadena Avenue beginning in 2020.

"No other candidate has first-name relationships with our county leaders and regional officials," she says in an advertisement. "I make sure your voice is heard. I make things happen for South Pasadena."

This is the first time that Neidinger, 66, a two-term commission veteran, has drawn opposition. She has lived in South Pasadena for 27 years.

A graduate of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., she worked at two telecommunications companies, Ascom Timeplex and Global Crossing, and the asset management firm T. Rowe Price before retiring.

In her campaign, Neidinger cites her six years’ experience on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and her work supervising South Pasadena’s public safety department. Last year she led a community group that helped select a new fire chief and director of public safety.

Atop her platform is the need for a new fire station, and she has the endorsement of the International Association of Firefighters.

"I really enjoy civil service, really giving back to the city that I live in," she said. "I’ve learned a lot in the past six years."

Penny, 59, is a Chicago native who attended Gulf Coast Community College and worked as a park ranger in Panama City from 1997 to 2001 before moving to South Pasadena.

Now he is a licensed community manager who has run Sea Towers, a 55-plus high-rise complex northwest of St. Petersburg, since 2003.

Penny was appointed to a vacancy on the City Commission in June 2009 and served nearly eight years before stepping aside last year. He has supervised the city’s finance, public works, public safety and community improvement departments, he says, and "no one know this city better than I do."

In his campaign, he cites his stint as president of the Suncoast League of Cities in 2016-2017 and ticks off accomplishments like lengthening the yellow light times on stop lights from 3.6 to 4.3 seconds (the longest allowed by law) and getting a school bus stop on Pasadena Isle.

Like Neidinger, he has been endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters.

Anna Bryson, Michael Moore Jr. and Whitney Elfstrom are student journalists at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.