NEW PORT RICHEY — It was a cordial affair as the crowded field of candidates vying for two City Council seats made their pitch to a packed room of voters Wednesday night.
The seven candidates in this year's field — Chopper Davis, Bob Langford, Michael Malterer, Ginny Miller, Rose Mohr, Jeffrey Starkey and Jonathan Tietz — gathered for a forum at City Hall to take questions from voters.
Dozens of residents heard from the candidates on various issues facing the city.
Former council member and longtime teacher Ginny Miller, 54, summed up the civil tone of the event when she recalled her first run for office in response to a question about the first-time candidates who are running. She said while she has experience to do the job, voters should not hold inexperience against the rest of the field, which, other than Langford, are first-time candidates.
"Being new on council is normal," she said.
Incumbent Bob Langford, 70, said he is seeking three more years on the council to keep the ball rolling on the economic progress the city has made.
"I'm trying to complete what we've started in our economic redevelopment in our neighborhoods and our downtown businesses," he said.
Crime became a hot topic, as the entire panel praised the appointment earlier Wednesday of Kim Bogart as interim police chief.
Insurance agent Jeffrey Starkey, 38, praised Bogart's experience and said it will be needed to combat rising crime in the city, which Starkey said is being fueled by the prescription pill epidemic. Starkey said he will also seek a better relationship between City Hall and the police department.
"I'll tell you, you have your work cut out for you," Starkey said to Bogart, who attended the forum.
Tietz, 24, a freelance videographer, said public safety and fighting crime is a cornerstone of his campaign. Residents are concerned about police coverage in the city, Tietz said, and he pledged to work with law enforcement to find solutions.
"My streets are not safe and today safety is my top concern living in New Port Richey," he said.
Questions also turned to redevelopment, as one resident sought the candidates' vision for the city-owned historic Hacienda Hotel.
Miller, who cast a vote in 2003 as a council member to purchase the Hacienda, said the city should keep ownership of the hotel in order to direct its renovation, unless a "strong" contract that would protect the city and the hotel could be reached with a developer.
"I voted for it then and I believe today the city did the right thing," she said of the purchase.
Malterer, 24, a Penske Truck leasing manager, said the Hacienda Hotel is a "great facility," but he would rather see the city sell it. He wants to generate a public/private partnership to improve the building until the city can sell it.
"I think we've had enough ownership of the Hacienda," Malterer said. "Right now it's in dire straits because we own it."
Voters also wanted to know how the candidates would address generating business in empty storefronts downtown.
Rose Mohr, 65, who owns Market Off Main, said her experience running a business in the heart of the city gives her good insight into how to bring businesses into the downtown area. She said the city should continue to seek grant assistance for the businesses starting up in the city and pledged to work to improve communication between the business community and City Hall.
"There needs to be a better line of communication between the city and existing businesses," she said.
Davis, 65, a salesman and former downtown business owner, said the city needs to make a better effort to distinguish itself along U.S. 19. He said businesses would find it much more attractive to locate downtown if motorists could recognize when they enter the city along U.S. 19.
Seeking funding from the Florida Department of Transportation for landscaping could be an option, he said.
"I think that's a start to recognize where New Port Richey is on U.S. 19," he said.