ST. PETE BEACH — The questions were both direct and far-ranging as candidates vying for posts on the City Commission stood before a full audience Tuesday to answer voter questions.
On the dais were mayoral candidates Maria Lowe and Steve McFarlin, District 1 candidates Lorraine Huhn and Terri Finnerty, and District 3 candidates James Anderson and Gregory Premer.
McFarlin and Huhn, who are running for re-election, strongly defended their records, as the challengers attempted to score points and make an impression on an electorate that will go to the polls March 11.
The candidates answered questions submitted by the audience to League of Women Voters sponsors before the forum began.
Hot topics were the city's aging infrastructure — particularly roads, sewers and stormwater systems — redevelopment rules, fiscal restraint, dog-friendly beaches and qualifications for office.
Finnerty said her role as "first lady" of St. Pete Beach when her husband served as mayor and previously as a commissioner has prepared her for holding office herself. She cited her leadership skills honed as a college-level educator and an organizational development and training consultant.
"I hope to bring about collaboration and cooperation and not the dissent that the city has experienced in the past," she said.
Huhn, the District 1 incumbent, said she hopes to be re-elected so she can continue working hard to improve public safety, encourage redevelopment, and protect both residential and business investments.
"This is a very important election," Huhn said. "The commission is taking action after years and years of talking about things."
Anderson, a retired firefighter, repeatedly charged that the city has failed to properly maintain its aging sewer system and called for studies on hurricane evacuation, traffic management and sewer capacity before major redevelopment is allowed.
"I want to make sure the city moves forward in a fiscally sound way," he said.
Premer emphasized his six years on the city's recreation board, 12 years as either vice president or president of the Belle Vista Civic Association, "countless hours" volunteering at local schools, and participation in community events as important to his ability to serve as a "positive influence" on the commission.
Premer criticized Anderson for costing the city more than $600,000 in legal fees for his actions against the commission and the city's comprehensive plan and said Anderson could be forced to recuse himself from crucial commission votes — thereby depriving District 3 voters of a voice in commission decisions.
Anderson replied by pledging that if elected he would "remove my name from the lawsuit" to eliminate any conflict of interest.
"The District 3 race is about positive versus negative," said Premer. "My approach is all about compromise and negotiation while my opponent is all about confrontation and litigation."
The comprehensive plan was cited in several questions from the audience.
Premer, Huhn and McFarlin said that if the plan is not upheld in court they would move to reinstate or only tweak the current plan, which was largely drawn up by a pro-hotel group and approved by voters in 2008.
"We need to increase the tax base," McFarlin said. "We have had no redevelopment to speak of in the last 10 years."
McFarlin, a retired business owner, said he is proud to be supported by the city's hotel industry and of the results of his first term as mayor.
He cited as accomplishments contracting with the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement, repealing red-light cameras, lowering taxes, increasing revenue and beginning serious study of redevelopment of the Corey Avenue area.
"I promised when I was elected to use my business background and my 50 years of knowledge of the city to make the city work. I feel I have lived up to that promise," McFarlin said.
Despite her short tenure in the city (she has lived in St. Pete Beach for less than two years), Lowe said her "lifetime of education and service in the military" equips her to lead the city.
"We must find a win-win solution. We must," Lowe said, referring to the political divides over redevelopment issues.
Lowe drew laughter when she said that eliminating "poop, potholes and polarization" were her main priorities.
"I have served globally and now I want to serve locally," Lowe said, adding that she hopes to heal the city's political rifts.