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Little disagreement at Safety Harbor candidate forum

SAFETY HARBOR — The incumbents urged voters to keep the current City Commission team intact, while the challengers asked for a chance to serve, during the city's 2012 candidate forum Monday night.

Incumbent Commissioner Nancy Besore, a high school teacher, is being challenged by retired city employee Elise Vinson. Incumbent Mary Lynda Williams, who retired from Honeywell, drew a challenge from first-time candidate Cliff Merz, an engineer and faculty researcher at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.

The election campaign has been quiet, but the City Hall meeting room was full for the forum, which was moderated by the League of Women Voters. The candidates had opening and closing statements and answered questions from the audience. The election is Tuesday.

Williams, 62, who has been on the commission since 2008, quipped that she has "three more years left in me." Since she is the only retiree on the commission, she said she is able to devote full time to being a commissioner. She represents the board at events, has attended training sessions and does her homework, she said.

"I believe our current commission is headed in the right direction," she said. She added that it is particularly important for voters to keep the current commission in office because the city recently lost its city manager and will be hiring a new one this year.

Her challenger, Merz, 51, said he has been campaigning door to door and has won the endorsement of the union local representing Safety Harbor firefighters. If elected, he wants to improve communication between the city and residents.

Incumbent Besore, who was elected in 2009, said she is thinking "AMA — Ability, Motivation and Attitude" and offers all three to residents. She said she has loved being a commissioner.

Her challenger, Vinson, 54, said she feels her 22 years working in the city's finance department gave her "a unique perspective on how the city operates." She said if she's elected, she will use common sense and will keep the city's fiscal and environmental health at the forefront.

There was little disagreement among the candidates during the 60-minute forum. All four candidates said they support the city's purchase of waterfront property behind the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, calling it a "legacy purchase." All four praised the city's library and recreation programs. All four positioned themselves as stewards of the city's quaint atmosphere and lovers of trees.

When asked to name the three most important issues facing the city, all the candidates said hiring a new city manager is the commission's most important task. And all mentioned solving the city's drainage problems as important. Merz and Besore added that they want to work closely with the business community to ensure that there is good communication and assistance when needed.

Vinson said that developing the spa property is a high priority, and Williams mentioned that one of her priorities is maintaining city services while keeping the tax rate low.

Vinson's perspective as a former city staffer was apparent when an audience member asked what the candidates would do if they needed to cut the city budget 10 percent. Vinson said the city uses a labor-intensive process to print and mail utility bills and could save money by sending postcards instead or promoting the use of e-billing.

In answer to the same question, Besore said she would have staff look at cutting to "bare basics." Merz said he would review all revenue and expenditures and perhaps delay some projects a year. Williams would encourage use of the early retirement option, perhaps eliminate some programs and consider drawing from the city's healthy reserves.

When a questioner asked how the city could improve its customer service, some candidates seemed taken aback and said the city regularly gets accolades for its customer service.

"I haven't found anything lacking," said Merz. But Vinson said the city's decision to cut a receptionist position in City Hall now means that residents must stand in line sometimes to be served.

The candidate forum can be viewed any time through the city's website, www.cityofsafetyharbor.com. It will also be replayed on the city's InSight television channel at these dates and times: 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. today, 8:30 a.m. Friday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday, and 11 a.m. Monday.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. All registered voters in Safety Harbor can cast ballots in the city races. Registered Republicans can also vote in the Republican presidential primary.

Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4184 or dsteinle@tampabay.com.

Little disagreement at Safety Harbor candidate forum 01/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 8:02pm]
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