SAFETY HARBOR — During a recent Safety Harbor City Commission meeting, Commissioner Nancy Besore stared into the television camera and urged residents to join a protest against a proposed high-end apartment complex.
"In case you're of the opinion this is finished," said Besore, "it's only finished when you stop speaking."
Besore was still incensed that in February, she was on the losing end of a 3-2 vote to approve the 246-unit complex at State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road, site of the defunct Firmenich Citrus Center. For nine months, she and dozens of other residents had protested the complex, finally landing a victory last week when the Pinellas County Commission struck down the proposed project because of opponents' demands.
"I did not contact you before today because I did not want to use the force of my office to go against my city," Besore told county commissioners during their meeting Tuesday. "I am the one who has consistently been telephoned, consistently approached at church, and they say 'Commissioner, help us.' "
Besore's protests against a decision by her own commission have earned her both praise and condemnation, even as city officials warned she might be putting Safety Harbor on shaky legal ground.
When speaking against the project, she always specifies she's speaking as a resident and not a public official, she said, because she wouldn't want the Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers proposing the apartments, to accuse the city of unfairly interfering.
But Lynn Tipton of the Florida League of Cities said commissioners can't just flip a switch from elected official to resident — they are both at the same time. And they have the right to speak, she said.
While federal and state lawmakers often try to rally public opinion and force changes when they've lost on an issue, it is unusual for local government officials to do so. In some cities, it is even banned.
Besore and other residents insisted the complex would cause unbearable traffic, decreased property values and be out of place in quaint Safety Harbor. They said they'd rather keep the industrial designation, so county commissioners obliged.
Besore was elected in 2009 after she successfully crusaded against a subdivision planned near her home.
Mayor Joe Ayoub, who voted in favor of the apartment project, also spoke to the County Commission last week — in favor of the complex. Mayors often speak on behalf of their cities, representing the majority opinion even if they disagree.
Ayoub recognizes Besore's right to speak, but said her style is unusual. "I've been on the short side of the stick on issues," he said. "And when that happens, I respect the will of the commission and dust myself off and go on to the next issue."
JoAnn Wechter, owner of Brady's Backyard BBQ, has criticized Besore's involvement, once calling her out at a City Commission meeting for using Facebook to urge apartment proponents to "bring it on." In Wechter's view, Besore ignored small business owners who would have welcomed the potential influx of new customers.
"She's not here to rally one side or the other but to listen to all of the information," Wechter said. "She shouldn't have a personal agenda."
Russell Norman, who lives in the neighborhood behind the proposed project, said Besore did something some other commissioners didn't: advocate for residents. He plans to raise money to defeat commissioners who favored the project and help Besore get re-elected.
"We much appreciate her coming out to support us like that," he said.
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.