ST. PETERSBURG — When two men started brawling at a City Council meeting this month, it was a perfect moment for council candidate Leonard Schmiege.
The technology-loving District 8 contender says he is intensely interested in letting people know what's happening in local government, which is why he brought a videocamera to that Oct. 15 meeting. His footage was quickly posted on tampabay.com, the main news Web site of the St. Petersburg Times.
But in some ways, it also was a telling moment for District 8 council member Jeff Danner. Because while Schmiege was dead set against the city giving a public sidewalk to BayWalk, Danner said he was willing to consider it.
Ultimately, Danner voted against it, saying the downtown complex needs a more comprehensive solution than simply giving up some concrete. But it is representative, Danner said, of the balanced approach he takes on the City Council.
Schmiege, 40, said he was never willing to consider the sidewalk closing, which he believes was simply designed to shut up protesters. He opposes it so strongly that he said he would consider legal action to prevent the city from implementing it. "If the ACLU drops the ball, I'll pick it up and move forward."
The issue illustrates the choice in the District 8 race: Danner, the incumbent council chairman who said he has spent years on nuts-and-bolts work making St. Petersburg neighborhoods stronger; or Schmiege, a tech-savvy free speech advocate who says he wants to help citizens get active and is against corporate welfare.
Schmiege stresses that he believes "in full transparency and as much input (from) the citizenry as possible." And he added, "I know technology, and there's no voice of technology on the council."
Danner, 49, says he came to public service naturally. He was a carpenter and contractor working on historic homes in and around Historic Kenwood who occasionally found himself amazed at land-use decisions made by city boards. Friends encouraged him to serve on the boards himself, so eventually he did.
Danner said he remembers when it wasn't easy to find a restaurant that would stay open for dinner in downtown St. Petersburg on a Saturday night. He, his wife and friends made a point to patronize the ones that did.
So the council was a logical next step for him four years ago, he said.
Danner said he has worked to revitalize the Grand Central area and to bolster 34th Street businesses affected by drugs and prostitution. He is now focusing heavily on transportation issues, serving on the boards of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Danner said he has many ideas for assistance programs to help small businesses, but he thinks it's important to work with big ones, too, including the Tampa Bay Rays. He is open to listening to proposals for a new stadium.
Schmiege said he's not interested in pouring more tax money into professional baseball, especially when the Rays have a long-term contract with the city to play at Tropicana Field.
"If they want to change the deal to increase the benefits to the city, then that sounds good. But our position would have to be enhanced and not diminished," he said.
Schmiege said this issue is one reason he supports Kathleen Ford in the mayor's race. Danner supports Bill Foster.
Like Danner, Schmiege has been self-employed in St. Petersburg, working for a variety of clients. His company specializes in "engineering consulting" on electronic, mechanical and other projects, although he is careful to point out that he is not a licensed engineer.
Schmiege said this background is needed on the council, and that he has many ideas for using technology to help residents. He would like to expand free wireless access around the city. He would like local government to provide "metrics" across the city so people could compare neighborhoods on crime and other issues. He would like to see the city get to work on applications such as this: You point your cell phone down a city street, and, using GPS coordinates, the phone tells you when the road will be repaired.
Both men have faced some financial challenges in their own businesses. Danner had a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2002, which he attributed to business situations that "got out of hand." Schmiege listed his net worth as negative $98,000 — the result, he said, of investing heavily in two inventions for which he has high hopes.