More than half of Pinellas County's cities will have elections March 9, but ballots will start arriving in mailboxes this week for those who have asked to vote by mail.
Some cities have short ballots this year, so you might be tempted to toss your ballot in the trash or mark it quickly and return it to the elections office just to get the task out of the way.
Instead, be an informed and cautious voter. Put your ballot in a safe place until closer to election day, and use the time between now and March 9 to educate yourself and watch for news about your city election. Local governments face enormous challenges this year due to declining revenues, so your local officials may be making decisions that will affect the city services and quality of life in your community. You'll want to know that you made the best choices you could as a voter.
The cities having local elections or referendums in March are Belleair, Belleair Beach, Belleair Bluffs, Clearwater, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, North Redington Beach, Oldsmar, Redington Beach, St. Pete Beach, Seminole and Tarpon Springs.
Three North Pinellas cities will be electing mayors. In Tarpon Springs, longtime city Commissioner David Archie, who left office in 2008 because of term limits, has returned to run for mayor. He is being challenged by a familiar opponent, attorney Matt King, who ran against him for a commission seat in 2005. In Oldsmar, incumbent Mayor Jim Ronecker is competing against one of his council colleagues, Suzanne Vale. In Indian Rocks Beach, incumbent Mayor R. B. Johnson drew a challenge from Don House, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Commission seat last year.
While the mayor's race is the only item on the ballot for Indian Rocks Beach voters, Oldsmar also has five candidates, none of them incumbents, running for two City Council seats, and Tarpon Springs has four candidates seeking two City Commission seats. In both Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs, voters could elect new majorities for their city governing boards.
Tarpon Springs has a longer ballot than any other city because of nine referendum questions from the city's Charter Revision Commission. The items include changing the date that commissioners are sworn in and spelling out how vacancies will be filled. But most interesting is a proposed addition to the charter that would require a referendum before the city's fire department could be eliminated. That question appears on the ballot as talk swirls of consolidating the county's 19 fire departments to save money.
Seminole's ballot is almost as long as Tarpon Springs', with seven candidates seeking two City Council seats and eight referendum questions, including one that asks if city elections should be moved to November.
St. Pete Beach's ballot has only one item on it, but it could have a major financial impact. It is a referendum asking voters' permission to change a community redevelopment plan approved last year that resulted in several lawsuits against the city. The proposed changes are part of a settlement agreement that could bring an end to the lawsuits, which haven't yet gone to court but already have cost the city more than $300,000 in legal fees. St. Pete Beach's referendum will be conducted entirely by mail, and those ballots will not be mailed until Feb. 17.
Kenneth City hopes to straighten out a situation that arose last year when Teresa Zemaitis was elected mayor. The city charter excludes any public employee from serving as mayor, which technically excluded Zemaitis, a public school teacher. If voters approve on March 9, the charter will be retroactively amended to state that no Kenneth City employee could serve as mayor.
City government is the government closest to the people, with the most opportunity to affect residents' daily lives. Voters who understand that will take the time to learn about the candidates and the sometimes complicated referendum questions before casting a ballot.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.