CLEARWATER — The City Council is either a fiscally shrewd, visionary group or dangerously out of touch with city residents.
It depends on which of the five City Council candidates is talking.
At a candidate forum on Sand Key Tuesday, Seat 4 incumbent Bill Jonson and challenger David Allbritton and Seat 5 candidate Hoyt Hamilton had similar takes on that issue.
They generally credited the council with reviving downtown, spurring beach development and guiding municipal finances through a rough recession.
But political newcomers Konrad McCree Jr., a minister and business analyst at WellCare Health Plans who is running for Seat 4, and Jon-Paul Rosa, a Seat 5 candidate, portrayed the council as unresponsive and isolated.
"There are a lot of people as I've canvassed the city that I've talked to that say this City Council has no idea about some of the issues that are going on. I hear the same thing everywhere," McCree, 29, said.
Added Rosa: "A big concern that I've heard is the current City Council is out of touch. There aren't people who listen."
Hamilton, 55, a City Council member from 2001 to 2006, said he thinks the council has "steadied the ship during the recession" and done a great job of redeveloping the beach.
Jonson, 69, credited the council for building Beach Walk.
Allbritton, a former chairman of the Downtown Development Board, said "all the pieces are coming into play" for downtown revitalization.
Allbritton and Hamilton, though, did take issue with the city's development code, which they said is too rigid. And Jonson, when asked for an example of the council dropping the ball, said the city had bungled a small state grant for landscaping street medians.
A question about short-term rental homes in Clearwater Beach neighborhoods created some heat between Jonson and Allbritton.
Jonson criticized a 2007 court ruling allowing some short-term rentals. Allbritton, 63, who owns rental properties on the beach, was a party in the case. He said many of today's Clearwater residents discovered the city by vacationing in those rentals.
Hamilton, whose family has operated the Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach for a half-century, said voters should know that he is "personally invested" in the community and that many friends and business associates encouraged him to run for office again.
Rosa, 30, said he doesn't have any "financial investments" and that friends didn't "talk him into" running.
"I'm not a politician or a businessman, I'm a former soldier," said Rosa, who served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence analyst.
Neither the candidates nor the three dozen or so people in the audience spent much time discussing a proposed downtown facility for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Voters approved a change to the city's charter in November that allows the city to enter into negotiations to lease the City Hall site to CMA to build a new aquarium. At the time, many observers said the vote was the most important in a generation for the city.
Each candidate made these pitches to the audience:
• McCree took issue with Jonson and Allbritton's position that the city has invested heavily in North Greenwood. He said many residents of the predominantly African-American neighborhood don't use the city aquatic center because of "astronomical fees" and that the MLK Center being shuttered had hurt the community.
• Jonson said he took pride in mastering policy details and noted that Sand Key residents made up 13 percent of "tax value" to the city. "It's something that I do appreciate," he said.
• Rosa referred several times to his military duty, saying that he had a passion for service. He also proposed equipping municipal buildings with solar panels and building a "green" convention center.
• Hamilton said that "nothing is more important than public safety" and stressed his fiscal prudence, citing his father's dictum that "if you watch the pennies, the dollars will follow."
• Allbritton said he would "think outside the box," and he returned several times to the importance of attracting new business to Clearwater and nurturing its technology sector.
The next forum will be at 7 p.m. Thursday in City Hall, 112 Osceola Ave. The election for the citywide council seats is March 11. Monday is the deadline to register to vote in that election.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.