DUNEDIN — In October, 100 supporters of City Commissioner Ron Barnette attended his election kickoff at a waterfront home on Victoria Drive.
The event triggered the beginning of Barnette's campaign for re-election in March. Within weeks, he had raised about $6,000 in contributions. On his campaign website, electronbarnette.com, he posted his platform and asked for volunteers.
"I had a pretty clear focus on what I was intending to do to run," he said. "I was knocking on doors, getting ready to move. You're so focused on your own game plan."
Then, to his surprise — no one else ran.
After the candidate qualifying deadline expired Monday, Barnette and fellow Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski were effectively re-elected to the five-member City Commission for three more years — without a single vote being cast.
"I guess in the back of your mind you're always wondering what would happen," Barnette said Wednesday. "It hasn't registered yet."
Barnette could be forgiven for expecting more resistance. November's general election saw an overturn of incumbents that swept across the country. Bujalski was first elected to a special two-year term in 2006 to replace a commissioner who resigned; she was re-elected in 2008. Similarly, Barnette won a special two-year term in 2009.
Both credit their lack of opposition with residents' good attitudes about the commission.
"We've done some pretty good things this last year — budgets, parkland, the kind of things the public typically appreciates," Barnette said. "There might be a sense of, if it's not broke, why try to fix something?"
"I think that (residents) feel they have a responsive government," Bujalski said. "They think they've got a place they can voice their opinions. Sometimes they're happy with what we're doing. Sometimes they're not."
Lately, city leaders across the state have had to deal with more bad news than good. Falling property tax revenue has squeezed much of the fun, like big projects or community events, from city budgets, leaving leaders with the joyless task of slashing spending.
"It's not exactly the most welcoming dialogue, when you have to deal with budget cuts and personnel layoffs — those are not enjoyable topics," Barnette said. "Maybe the climate was not one to get people fired up if they want to do interesting things with policy and legislation."
In November, 27 percent of the city's 50,000 voters turned in ballots, just a touch higher than the county's 25 percent turnout, election records show.
Local elections, however, almost always attract fewer voters. In Dunedin in 2008, turnout was just shy of 15 percent.
That's part of the reason commissioners put a referendum on the November ballot asking whether voters supported expanding commission terms from three to four years. The change, they said, would help synchronize local elections with general elections, when turnout is greater. That measure passed with 55 percent of the vote.
Bujalski and Barnette will have three-year terms.
The term change will begin during the city's next vote in 2012, when Mayor Dave Eggers, Vice Mayor Dave Carson and Commissioner Julie Scales will face re-election.
Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Gulfport and 13 other cities, many of them beach communities, are scheduled to vote March 8, according to Pinellas election records. Indian Shores, like Dunedin, has canceled its election for a lack of contested races.
Dunedin's last unopposed election was in 2005, when commissioners were still elected at-large.
The canceled March election will save the city about $50,000 in election expenses like ballots and poll worker wages, said City Clerk C.R. Wirthlin.
Oh, and that $6,000 Barnette raised? He said he'll return it to his donors.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or [email protected]