ST. PETE BEACH — The March 11 City Commission election will be hotly contested. The mayor's office and two spots on the commission are up for grabs and two candidates are vying for each of the three open seats.
Six candidates qualified last week: incumbent Steve McFarlin and challenger Maria Lowe for mayor; incumbent Lorraine Huhn and challenger Terri Finnerty for District 1 commissioner; and James Douglas Anderson and Gregory Premer who want to fill the District 3 commission seat. Current District 3 Commissioner Marvin Shavlan decided not to seek a third term.
If the challengers win, the new majority is unlikely to cause any major shift in the direction the commission has set for the city, where land use has been a polarizing issue in recent years.
Only Anderson, who is suing the city over its Comprehensive Plan, is opposed to much of the commission's recent efforts to set redevelopment rules.
He thinks the current city management is "dysfunctional," pointing to what he says are "failures" in addressing raw sewage flowing into city streets and vacant properties in disrepair.
Anderson's lawsuit, already argued at Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal and supported by the First Amendment Foundation, could be decided at any point.
He is also challenging the land use plan before a state administrative panel with a hearing scheduled in June.
Voters have repeatedly supported the current commission's stance on redevelopment by eliminating the need for voter approval for future comprehensive plans and putting people on the commission who favor the currently challenged plan.
Another major issue the candidates will address is the future of the Corey Avenue/Downtown District, which the commission is studying in consultation with visioning experts. One controversial proposal is to reroute traffic to create a couplet of one-way streets surrounding the downtown area.
The couplet would free up space for additional parking and make it easier for pedestrians to access the entire length of Corey Avenue.
Business and property owners in the downtown and Corey Avenue areas have mixed opinions, however, some fearing that the rerouted traffic would adversely affect their businesses and properties.
Lowe, Finnerty and Premer all say they largely support the commission's actions regarding redevelopment.
"The planning efforts the city has been engaged in over the past few months were very well done," Lowe said, stressing that "fresh eyes and fresh attitude about the comprehensive plan are essential because the current approach has been legally expensive and led to stagnation."
Finnerty, who is the wife of former Mayor Mike Finnerty, called the Corey Avenue and couplet proposals "a wonderful idea" that will increase pedestrian safety. She cited her vision and team building skills as assets she will draw on if elected.
Premer supports the city's Comprehensive Plan and said he wants to make the Corey Avenue area one of the best shopping and destination points on West Coast.
As for the incumbents, both McFarlin and Huhn are proud of the commission's accomplishments during their terms.
McFarlin pointed to the "complete revamping" of the city's downtown district, a remarketing program for the city's community center that is expected to significantly increase revenue, and the commission "holding firm" for implementation of the Comprehensive Plan to "enhance redevelopment."
Huhn said she is "highly energized by the "tremendous progress made within the city" and wants to maintain the momentum going. She pointed to Corey Avenue's "architectural lighting and al fresco dining" as "previews of what is to come."
Here are brief backgrounds on the candidates:
Maria Lowe, 37: She has lived in St. Pete Beach for 16 months. She is a disabled Afghan War combat veteran, a graduate of West Point, and holds an MBA from George Washington University. Lowe worked as a systems engineer before becoming a full-time community volunteer. She is a member of the city's Historic Preservation Board and the Pass-a-Grille Women's Club. She is married and has a stepson.
Steve McFarlin, 57 (incumbent): He has lived in the city for 19 years and is a third-generation native of St. Petersburg. He has served as mayor for three years. He is retired and previously served as president of the Dew Cadillac dealership in St. Petersburg. He lists his home and various investments among his assets. He has three children.
Terri Finnerty, 68: She has lived in St. Pete Beach for 31 years and holds a doctorate of education. She is president of Course Correction, a consulting firm specializing in organizational development and training. She is vice president of St. Pete Beach Support Our Troops, and is a member of various clubs and associations. She lists two homes and investments among her assets. She is married and has two children.
Lorraine Huhn, 83 (incumbent): She has lived in the city for 28 years and lists primary school teaching and financial services marketing as her professions. She has served on the commission for two years. She is a member of the Yacht and Tennis Club, as well as a variety of other civic associations and clubs. She lists her home and investments among her assets. She is a widow and has six children.
James Douglas Anderson, 56: He has lived in St. Pete Beach for eight and a half years and is a retired firefighter and paramedic. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, co-chairman of the Tampa Bay Spasmodic Dysphonia Support Group, and a member of various civic groups. He lists two homes and investments as assets. He is married.
Gregory Premer, 56: He has lived in the city for 21 years and works in sales of Nevco scoreboards, and video and LED displays. He is vice president and former president of the Belle Vista Civic Association, is a member of the city's Recreation Advisory Board, and volunteers at several schools. He is married and has three teenage girls in public schools.