DUNEDIN — The Dunedin Fine Art Center's executive director rebutted accusations Thursday that the organization is backing a political candidate.
City Commissioner David Carson told the Tampa Bay Times this week that he believes he's facing an opponent in the Nov. 6 election as a result of a former art center president threatening to find a challenger if Carson failed to support the art center's requests for city funding.
The center recently asked the city to chip in $500,000 toward a state matching grant that would pay for a building expansion. Carson and his supporters estimate as many as 25 to 50 percent of challenger Heather Gracy's $19,305 worth of campaign contributions come from art center members, board members and staff, including George Ann Bissett, the center's director.
In denying the accusations, Bissett said she donated to Gracy's campaign as a longtime friend who attends the same church and was impressed by Gracy's repeated chairmanship of Our Lady of Lourdes' Saints & Sinners Ball.
Bissett, of Palm Harbor, wants to see proof that the art center is behind such a large portion of Gracy's donations. And even if they are, she says, what's the big deal?
"We have 1,600 members of the art center and we have 4,000 students," so Gracy is bound to have members among her donors, Bissett said, adding, "It doesn't reflect well on him trying to use the art center as some type of wedge. The art center was built to help the community."
The art center funding was proposed last month by City Manager Rob DiSpirito as part of a larger economic development package that would also steer money toward the Dunedin Historical Museum, Blatchley House and a neighborhood improvement program.
Bissett noted that the art center applied for the Florida Cultural Facilities grant three years ago but it wasn't awarded until July — months after Gracy announced her candidacy.
Carson, though, says the alleged threat to put up a candidate predates announcement of the $500,000 grant. He says city staff notified commissioners that the state had informally offered the art center grant in the spring, before Gracy filed to run.
Gracy says she's not an art center member and thus is unaware which of her donors are members. She says her donors are showing their support for quality of life initiatives she supports, and might also be members of other groups like the marina, golf club, library or Chamber of Commerce.
Art center advisory board member Deborah Kynes agrees.
She gave Gracy a $33 in-kind gift in the form of beverages and paper products. Her husband, Allen, an art center board member, donated $200, records show.
"Everyone has different interests and they may choose to support all of those components or some," she said. "Whatever we all choose to support, it shouldn't be divisive because we all care about our quality of life in Dunedin."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.