Saturday, February 17, 2018
Politics

Residents angered by vote to extend Safety Harbor terms

SAFETY HARBOR — At least on paper, Monday was a good night for Mayor Joe Ayoub.

He secured an extra eight months in the mayor's post.

And he finally overcame months of resistance from his City Commission colleagues to obtain more than $2 million for Waterfront Park, a 13-acre parcel designated for pedestrian trails, benches and a boat launch.

The latter might be Ayoub's first policy victory since he took office in January. But it was his vote to extend his own term that had people seething.

"In November, dollars to doughnuts they'll be new faces on that commission," Dennis Spicer said after the vote, standing outside City Hall with a handful of angry residents. "I know one new face that will be on that commission."

Commissioner Nina Bandoni also will benefit from her vote to move the date of next year's city election from March to November, but most of the resident anger seemed directed toward Ayoub. Former Mayor Andy Steingold, who some speculate plans to run against Ayoub in 2014, was among those who fumed outside.

Commissioners voted 3-2 to change the election date so Safety Harbor could piggyback on the countywide election in November, saving the city about $20,000 per election cycle. The move could also help drive up voter turnout, commissioners agreed.

Commissioners Nancy Besore and Cliff Merz voted to continue holding elections in March, while Ayoub, Bandoni and Commissioner Richard Blake voted to change elections to November — even if it means extending terms.

"There are two quantifiable benefits we get out of it," Ayoub said. "We can both save money and we can get a greater voter turnout so citizens are represented more accurately."

Hundreds of people appeared to have signed petitions urging commissioners not to change the election dates, but Ayoub questioned the validity of the petitions and elicited gasps from the audience when he said some of the wording contained "blatant falsehoods."

About 15 people stormed out after the vote, booing as they headed for the door. One man shouted, "Good luck!"

Outside, some residents said they preferred a proposal by Blake to save the same money by moving the March 2015 elections to November 2014 — cutting by four months the terms of Blake, Besore and Merz.

Besore and Merz quickly shot down that idea, saying they believe people like having city and county elections separately.

"I know there are costs associated with it," Merz said. "But I see that as a cost of doing business."

On Tuesday, Ayoub lamented the anger from residents but said he has been consistent during his time on the commission in his votes to combine city and county elections to save money.

Several other cities, including Dunedin and Largo, have taken similar measures in recent years after the state cut back the money it passed on to cities for local elections.

Although Ayoub, Bandoni and other commissioners questioned whether it was ethical for them to vote on extending their own terms and gain the corresponding public salary, City Attorney Alan Zimmet advised that the issue doesn't constitute a conflict of interest under state law.

Ayoub said he voted the way he thought was best, and he wants to stay focused on moving forward on the Waterfront Park and other projects.

The commission agreed Monday to spend $2.25 million on the park over the next two budget years, a big concession for some commissioners who hesitate to dip into the city reserve fund.

The money could allow the city to get some landscaping, pedestrian trails and parking on the bayfront land behind the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa that the city bought in early 2012.

Bandoni said she wants to pay most or all of the money back to the reserves, but the commission hasn't hammered out the exact plan.

Safety Harbor's reserve fund is one of the healthiest in Pinellas County at $8.2 million, nearly four times the city's required minimum.

"We say, 'We've got this big reserve, we've got this big reserve,' " Bandoni said. "But if we hobble ourselves by committing it to this park and then we need it, there's going to be a problem."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.

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