SAFETY HARBOR — Joe Ayoub had not yet settled into the mayor's chair in City Hall when his predecessor, Andy Steingold, hinted that he might make another run for the city's top political post.
"This may not be my last Mayor's Breakfast," he said at the annual December fundraiser, just before Ayoub took office in January.
Steingold said the statement was made lightheartedly, that he didn't want to just "shut the door and say, 'Good luck, everyone!' "
But, in many ways, the comment foreshadowed what may be the biggest challenge to Ayoub's leadership: Steingold.
Ayoub ran unopposed for mayor after Steingold resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for judge, so he did not have to mount a political campaign.
But with his predecessor and possible future opponent seemingly hovering over his shoulder, Ayoub is now forced to take on a more protracted — and possibly more grueling — bid for public favor.
Steingold has continued to attend public meetings since he left office, and he blasted Ayoub on Facebook, calling him an "interim mayor" and accusing him of "ulterior motives."
As a matter of political courtesy, mayors usually stay away from city politics when their successors take office. They seek higher office or they resume their private lives.
However, in this case, rumors that Steingold is gearing up for the mayor's seat have persisted.
"I'm surprised Andy is acting this way, as his behavior is contrary to the advice he gave me," Ayoub said. "Which was to know when your time is up, give other people a chance to serve and don't interfere once you are gone."
Steingold, an attorney, confirms that he may run against Ayoub but said he's gone out of his way not to meddle with Ayoub's leadership. He's too busy with his family and coaching youth football to tend to city politics, he said.
In the few public meetings he attends, he said, he sits in the back and doesn't speak. He also doesn't sign petitions or make any other official effort to weigh in on matters before the commission.
Some of Steingold's family members have signed petitions opposing Ayoub, according to public documents.
"I'm not out stumping, I'm not out politicking, I'm not out stirring the pot," Steingold said. "If people are saying I am, they're giving me credit where credit is not deserved."
But Ayoub and his supporters say Steingold's level of involvement is unprecedented in Safety Harbor politics.
Safety Harbor resident Leonard Levin said he heard Steingold before and during a recent meeting riling residents up over a rumor that commissioners were considering selling the Messenger property, a stretch of city-owned land next to Harborside Church on Marshall Street.
"It's nasty politics, that's what it is," Levin said, adding that Steingold should have known the Messenger property issue was long resolved. "I think if Andy has got something to say, he ought to come up to the lectern and say it rather than stirring up trouble in the back of the room and sending his minions up to the lectern to speak."
It's unclear who started the rumor about the Messenger property, but Steingold was one of several residents who perpetuated it on Facebook.
Commissioner Nina Bandoni replied to one of his Facebook posts, correcting his information so he didn't "rally people to come to a meeting for an item that isn't being considered."
But about 80 people from communities near the Messenger property showed up to protest, hanging around to also oppose an item that was on the agenda — one that was important to Steingold. Commissioners voted 3-2 to move the city election from March to November, in effect lengthening the terms for Ayoub and Bandoni.
Supporters said the change would allow the city to piggyback on county elections and save $20,000 per election cycle, while critics said it was unethical for elected officials to extend their own terms.
Steingold, before and after the decision, again turned to Facebook to criticize Ayoub.
"No wonder there is so much distrust in our elected officials!" Steingold wrote.
Steingold said he got the same misinformation about the Messenger property everyone else did and did not mean to spread false information.
Vice Mayor Cliff Merz said he has barely noticed Steingold's involvement. But he has no problem with it.
Steingold is a member of the public, after all.
"If you've been involved in the city for a little while, I'm sure you're still interested in what goes on," he said. "And that's fine."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters or mail letters to the Times, 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100, Clearwater, FL 33755.