CLEARWATER — Five Clearwater City Council candidates gathered publicly for the first time Wednesday in a candidate forum, seeking to establish themselves either as much-needed new blood or experienced political veterans.
First-time candidate Konrad McCree, 29, running against Seat 4 incumbent Bill Jonson and former Downtown Development Board chairman David Allbritton, said the council needs a new perspective — one unencumbered by "baggage."
"With a fresh vision, you need fresh people," McCree said.
Hoyt Hamilton, 55, is running for Seat 5 now held by term-limited Paul Gibson. Hamilton, who served on the council from 2001 to 2006, reminded the audience that his family, like Allbritton's, has lived in the city for generations.
"You hear a lot about fresh ideas and new blood. New blood and fresh ideas come from you," Hamilton said to the crowd. "Then what you need is someone capable on the council of implementing those ideas and being able to apply knowledge of where we came from to get where we are and a clear vision of where we can go in the future."
First-time candidate Jon-Paul Rosa, also running for Gibson's seat, highlighted his political outsider status.
"I will provide a fresh, young perspective from the minorities of Clearwater," said Rosa, 30, a U.S Army veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan. Rosa is Puerto Rican.
Allbritton, 63, who touted his long community involvement and lifelong residence in the city as a strength, said council members need to be on the same page.
"You can't be looking all over," he said. "The council needs to be focused on where we're going."
About 70 people attended the forum, which was sponsored by the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition.
The two-hour event covered a lot of ground, including questions on how the council should proceed with the proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium downtown, city budget priorities and how much emphasis to put on Clearwater Beach and downtown at the expense of other neighborhoods.
Jonson, 69, and a 10-year council veteran, emphasized his experience, delving into the details of public transit and the tentative agreement between the city and CMA on the downtown aquarium.
He said the city faces a preliminary $1.7 million budget deficit next year and repeatedly pointed to his policy of fiscal "sustainability."
"It's a time when we need to be very careful with the decisions we make," he said. "Experience is appropriate at this point in time."
The main source of disagreement among the candidates came in response to a question about what should take priority: beach tourism and continued development of downtown or a renewed focus on other neighborhoods.
Clearwater Beach drives city revenue, but more attention needs to be paid to the rest of the city, including sprucing up parks, Allbritton said.
"We need to return money back to the neighborhoods, making them nice," he said.
Hamilton, whose family owns the Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach, said tourists contribute one-third of Pinellas County sales tax revenue.
"That's a pretty good return on investment," Hamilton said. "Take (sales tax) money from the beach and put it directly into neighborhoods."
The beach "isn't quite cutting it anymore," Rosa said, adding that the city needs to find ways to keep residents and draw newcomers.
McCree said it's unwise to rely too heavily on tourism.
"A lot of the city's money has been (spent) on downtown development, on beach development," he said. "Clearwater is a lot more than the beach. Our neighborhoods are suffering."
Jonson said the city needs to let its previous heavy investment in downtown and the beach "percolate" while turning its attention to business recruitment and public transportation.
"We've been doing a lot of planning, now it's time to do the implementation," he said.
The election is March 11. Council seats are elected citywide.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.