Safety Harbor's five-member City Commission could have a new majority after the March 10 election. Three commission seats are up for grabs, sought by seven candidates. This is a difficult time for Florida's local governments because of the economic downturn. Adding to Safety Harbor's challenges is that there has been upheaval on both the city staff and the City Commission in the last couple of years. After the election, Mayor Andy Steingold will be the senior commission member with four years of experience. No other commission member will have more than two years. Safety Harbor voters should choose carefully on March 10 to ensure that the city has smart and capable leadership in these challenging times.
For Seat 1: Joe Ayoub
Two years ago Joe Ayoub was automatically elected without opposition to fill an unexpired two-year term on the City Commission. Only 30 years old at the time and fresh from a stint on the city's Budget Advisory Committee, Ayoub had a lot to learn. But he has spent the last two years growing into the job of commissioner, and we believe he deserves a full three-year term.
Ayoub has lived in Safety Harbor 18 years. He's a Countryside High graduate, and he holds bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting. Now 32 and a certified public accountant, Ayoub has worked as an accountant or auditor for IBM, Ernst & Young, CP Ships and ConMed Linvatec. He is currently employed by Mezrah Consulting of Tampa.
Ayoub entered elective office as an opponent of the proposed school bus depot and he also was concerned about cut-through traffic on residential streets. He is running for re-election, he said, because Safety Harbor, like most local governments, faces challenges and he wants to keep it headed in the right direction. For him, that means preserving Safety Harbor's charm while also allowing responsible growth and working toward a vibrant downtown. He is a proponent of low taxes, but not at the expense of valued public amenities. For example, he favored expansion of the city library.
With an important budget year looming, Ayoub's experience in accounting and finance could be especially useful. His goals in a new term should be to contribute more on budget issues and to deepen his ties to the people he serves by participating in more community events.
Ayoub has two opponents. Karen Skiff, 39, was raised in Safety Harbor but left as a teenager and spent many of the years since then wandering the state. Her experiences during those years included a period of homelessness, working as a day laborer, and getting arrested twice, once for fighting and once for burglary, though both charges eventually were dropped. Since returning to Safety Harbor in 2005, Skiff has been an active community volunteer and there is no doubt she loves the city and connects with its history, but she is not equipped for the role of elected official.
The other candidate, Robin Fornino, 50, is bright, well educated and informed about city issues, and if there were not a qualified incumbent in this race, she would have our vote. A New York native, Fornino has lived in Safety Harbor almost 17 years, holds degrees in biology and environmental science and has had two careers, the first in environmental science and the second in finance. She is currently a financial adviser for UBS. She said she is running because she feels the City Commission doesn't listen to residents enough and because she wants to foster consensus on the sometimes divided commission.
However, Ayoub has been a competent commissioner, and with so many newcomers on the commission, his two years of experience make him valuable.
For Seat 2: Mary Lynda Williams
Mary Lynda Williams, 60, was elected without opposition a year ago to finish the year remaining in the term of former commissioner Kathleen Earle, who resigned. Williams has worked hard to learn as much as she could as quickly as she could. Her work ethic alone qualifies her for the opportunity to have a full term.
Williams had attended City Commission meetings for years, but found it was a different world sitting on the other side of the dais. Williams, who was appointed vice mayor soon after taking office, has learned that a commissioner must keep an open mind, listen to all sides, have a thick skin and be willing to make the best decision, not necessarily the most popular one. She has immersed herself in the role, seeking out educational opportunities for elected officials, serving as the city's delegate to the Suncoast League of Cities, and showing up at events all over town.
Like every candidate running this year, Williams is intent on preserving Safety Harbor's unique charms. However, she also says the city must continue its quest for responsible development and redevelopment. The key, she said, is to make sure that projects are compatible with their surroundings and the city's vision.
Williams is known for constituent service. Calls she gets from residents who have a complaint or a need are quickly forwarded to the city manager to be addressed. Williams worked for 33 years in the finance department of Honeywell, so she takes a special interest in financial matters.
Williams' opponent is Barbara Ewert, 45, a physical therapist who has lived in Safety Harbor for seven years and previously owned Galleria 509 on Main Street. Ewert believes her business experience has given her insights that can be useful on the commission and calls herself "a visionary," but her knowledge of city issues and the city budget seems superficial.
For Seat 3: Nancy Besore
When it comes to choosing candidates for public office, background matters. It isn't difficult to figure out what Nancy Besore has been doing with her life. That's not the case when it comes to the other candidate in this race, Glen Caristinos.
Besore, 52, has been a teacher for 23 years. She teaches American history and government at Armwood High School in Seffner. A few years ago she went back to school and got her law degree.
An Illinois native, Besore got her degrees from Florida universities and settled in Safety Harbor 17 years ago. While she has not been actively involved in city affairs during those years, she said she decided to run for office "because people of my generation have not stepped up. I don't want to stay out of it."
Besore has a tendency to be unfocused in her thinking and verbose in her comments — things she will need to work on to be an effective commissioner. But she says she has "a real passion for Safety Harbor." She loves the downtown, but wishes there was something there to do after 9 p.m. — perhaps a dessert place, or a nice restaurant with an alcohol license where adults could go in the late evening. She would like to see more programs for children and senior citizens in the city. She wants the city to be more careful about granting variances from the city code or increasing densities near neighborhoods.
Her opponent, Caristinos, 42, moved to Safety Harbor three years ago and quickly got involved with numerous nonprofit groups in the city. With a partner, he started a pedicab business downtown.
Little is known about Caristinos' background, in part because he did not participate in the Times' editorial interview process. However, a check of available public documents revealed that he owed nearly $21,000 in back taxes in Maine, where he apparently lived before moving here; that he did not obtain a Florida driver's license or register his vehicle within the state-required time limit; that he had several moving violations and an outstanding ticket from 1985; and that he has never voted in Safety Harbor.
Opportunity to respond: The Times offers candidates who are not recommended the opportunity to submit a response for publication. Responses may be no more than 300 words and may not attack opponents. They should be submitted by 5 p.m. Tuesday to Diane Steinle, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Or they may be faxed to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.