DUNEDIN — The race for a Dunedin City Commission seat is heating up as rumors swirl about the candidates' plans for the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
Commissioner David Carson believes the only reason he's facing an opponent in the Nov. 6 election is because of an upcoming vote involving the art center. The center has asked the city to chip in $500,000 toward a state matching grant that would pay for a building expansion.
Carson, who has come out against the funding, points out that a substantial number of the campaign contributions for political newcomer Heather Gracy come from art center staff, board members or affiliates.
"I was told by a former (art center) president that if I don't support them, they'd find somebody to run against me," the one-term incumbent said. "This is a $500,000 election for them so it's all about money. … In my opinion, that's what this race is about."
But challenger Heather Gracy says Carson's art center accusation "has no merit."
She said her candidacy is based primarily on her and Carson's differing views about funding for city parks. The political newcomer said she also wants to preserve Dunedin's quality of life, which includes the art center as well as the marina and historical museum.
"The reason he has an opponent is because I don't like his voting record," Gracy said, "and because I think I represent what Dunedin needs and wants more than he does."
The concerns voiced by Carson are part of a larger pattern of unprecedented mudslinging that he and supporters say have included negative fliers distributed by Gracy's campaign and vandalism over the weekend at Carson's home.
The art center funding was proposed last month by City Manager Rob DiSpirito as part of a larger "quality of life" intended to boost tourism, residency and economic development.
Carson said he has supported an annual contribution of more than $100,000 in cash and in-kind gifts to the art center. But he called donating an extra $500,000 "inappropriate" given the tough economy.
Gracy says she tentatively supports DiSpirito's proposal but wants to hear public opinion, as well as more from city staff about how they plan to fund it.
"I don't mind my tax dollars going to support what I think is a great organization for our community," Gracy said. "Dunedin enjoys the branding as an arts destination. It drives our commerce, our tourism. The city partnered with the fine art center for decades."
A Tampa Bay Times review of Gracy's campaign finance reports shows $1,255 in cash and $430 in in-kind contributions came from 12 people listed as current or former art center board members, advisory board members or staff, including executive director George Ann Bissett.
Another $3,550 in cash and $524 worth of in-kind donations came from 23 people listed in art center newsletters as art center members.
Gracy's campaign manager is art center advisory board chairman Bill Francisco, whose wife Ginger, a teacher, gave the $500 maximum. Art center board member Mel Sams is Gracy's campaign treasurer.
Gracy says she's not a member of the art center, so she wouldn't know which of her campaign donors are affiliated with it.
"We live in a very small town," Gracy said. "I'm bound to have a percentage (of donors) that are possibly members of the Fine Art Center. But I don't know that."
Carson contends that Gracy's donor list presents a conflict of interest. His supporters estimate closer to 50 or 60 of Gracy's 187 contributors are art center affiliates who have contributed an estimated $10,000 to $11,000 — or over 50 percent of a total $19,305 raised — to Gracy's campaign.
"Obviously we all have a right under the First Amendment to free speech. The $500 (maximum contributions) are all legal. But when you go through the donor list and see close to 20 people have given her $500 apiece," Carson said, "that's startling and that's a concern that any one group would be that active financially."
He said he received only two $500 donations, from his brother and another supporter, and even turned down money from a city employee to avoid the appearance of impropriety when voting on raises.
Carson is also complaining about two of Gracy's "inflammatory" mailers, saying the most recent one features an "unflattering" photo of his profile and mischaracterizes his stance on bike paths and park funding.
"I have no problems defending my vote. But don't mislead," he said.
Gracy denies that her campaign mailers have been negative. Instead, she said the fliers are meant to "sharply" contrast their differences, and says her claims are all backed up by links to public documents and news articles posted on her website.
"I'm challenging David Carson and, being a challenger, I'm going to ask tough questions now so the voters can be assured if I'm elected I'm going to continue to ask the tough questions on the dais," she said, adding that she has her own questions about information on Carson's mailer that she believes to be vague or misleading.
Carson says he's "surprised" the campaign turned "dirty." He and Gracy met after she announced her candidacy and both agreed "to keep it about the issues."
Gracy acknowledged that meeting, saying she was "disappointed that Dave didn't pick up the phone and give me a call" after vandals hit his home.
Carson says he and his wife awoke about 6:30 a.m. Sunday to find about 50 plastic forks pitched in their yard and mustard from about 30 stomped-on packets staining his garage, truck and driveway.
The Carsons live in the back of their subdivision and no other homes were affected, leading them to conclude they were targeted. He and his wife cleaned up the mess.
On the advice of the city attorney, Carson reported the matter to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in case the situation escalates.
The Sheriff's Office said Carson told them he believed the vandalism was politically motivated. However, in an interview, Carson said he didn't have evidence to prove that.
"When you're violated like this, you wonder what the next step is," he said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.