There are a couple of departures from normal in this year's Clearwater city election. First, no one is running unopposed, which had been a trend in recent years. Second, four of the six candidates for City Council seats, while they don't agree on all issues, are united in the belief that the city has too many unnecessary regulations that make it tough to run a small business.
Those four candidates all operate small businesses. Three are running for the open Seat 4 being vacated because of term limits by Carlen Petersen, and they are joined by a former council member to make it a four-man race.
The fourth small business candidate is running for Seat 5 against the only incumbent in this year's race.
It is a unique field of candidates for a unique time in city government. With the recession continuing, city revenues still are falling and a difficult budget season looms. Some city residents are unhappy with service cuts, while others say the city still spends too much. Some residents say the city has become too heavy-handed about regulation. A group of barrier island residents wants to secede and start their own city. Despite the negativism in the community, six people still want to govern.
There is also one charter amendment question on the March 9 ballot. If approved, it would change the way the city selects an external auditor.
The St. Petersburg Times editorial board has studied the backgrounds and qualifications of the six council candidates and makes its recommendations here. We urge all residents to vote March 9.
Seat 4: Bill Jonson
No matter your proclivities as a voter, the race for Seat 4 offers you an option.
There is Wayne Carothers, 58, a 41-year resident of Clearwater who operates an air-conditioning company and says he is running because Clearwater has been good to him. He deals regularly with the city permitting departments, and while he said the city staff has always been helpful and the City Council does a good job, the city has too many regulations and its code enforcement is "a little overbearing," he said.
There is Clearwater native Herb Quintero Jr., 41, who battled the city over fish murals painted on the outside of his bait shop. The city said the murals were illegal signs; Quintero called them art and sued the city. The battle brought national publicity to Quintero and a $55,000 check from city coffers to settle the lawsuit before it went to trial. Quintero is critical of city government, calling it abrasive, bureaucratic and unwilling to listen.
There is Joe Paige, a 53-year-old residential contractor who says he is a conservative and advocate for personal liberty. Paige is known for his colorful speeches at local government meetings, often urging officials to do less rather than more for the public. He claims the city has "philosophically and ideologically lost its way."
And there is Bill Jonson, 65, who was an internal auditor and accountant for Honeywell until his retirement in 1999. Jonson served on the City Council from 2001 to 2007 and is the apparent frontrunner in this race based on his huge advantage in campaign contributions.
A fresh face, a new outlook can be appealing in an election season like this one, but that alone is not enough. Carothers seems thoughtful and eager, but he knows very little about city government. Quintero has good reason to be resentful of the city, but resentment isn't a platform and he offers too little else. Also, his Clearwater bait shop is in foreclosure. Paige has an interesting point of view about government (generally, that there needs to be a lot less of it), but does Clearwater really want a councilman who says he would close three libraries, sell parkland, require all recreation programs to be fully self-supporting with user fees, eliminate the tree ordinance, and allow new billboards and bigger signs?
Only one candidate for Seat 4 has the combination of experience, temperament, community involvement and understanding to govern in these challenging times, and that is Jonson. Jonson was a hard-working member of the council for six years. Since he left office, he has remained active, serving on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and some citizen advisory boards, immersing himself in the study of looming Pinellas transit issues such as light rail and rapid bus service, and maintaining the close ties he had with neighborhoods while in office.
If elected, he said the budget will be his first priority, followed by continuing to ensure safe, livable neighborhoods and working with the local chambers of commerce to find ways to bring jobs and money to the city.
"I still have great faith in the city of Clearwater," he said. "We just have to listen to each other and really cooperate, so we can get back on track for what the city has been and can be."
For Seat 4, the Times recommends Bill Jonson.
Seat 5: Paul Gibson
When Paul Gibson was elected three years ago, it was without this newspaper's recommendation. He had appeared suddenly on the scene after receiving a tax bill for his Clearwater Beach properties that he thought was too high. He implied he could do a better job running the government, and his blunt comments to the city staff and residents, both as a candidate and a new council member, were often rude.
Gibson, a 61-year-old Realtor, still rubs some people the wrong way, but he has learned to be more diplomatic and has discovered that issues are not always as simple as they seem. He also has learned, he said, that he needs his council colleagues' support to get anything done.
Now, he has a record to run on and it warrants his re-election to a four-year term. Gibson pushed for efficiency studies of the police and fire departments to get an objective view from an outside consultant. He worked successfully to increase setbacks on Clearwater Beach. He helped broker a new partnership between the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the Jolley Trolley that put the trolley on a sounder footing.
Gibson's opponent is Mike Riordon, 50, a former executive recruiter who owns a bike shop downtown and recently sparred with the city over display of rental bikes on his property. Riordon says the city needs to have more reasonable codes, should build projects such as turbines and a desalination plant to help its revenue position, and should go back to "living up to its values."
For Seat 5, the Times recommends a vote for Paul Gibson.
Charter amendment: No
The City Council is asking voters to amend the city charter to change the way the city's external auditors are selected.
The charter currently requires that the city change external auditors every five years. At the end of the five years, the company serving as auditor cannot retain the job. The city contends that the charter provision is a problem because mergers have left fewer auditing firms to choose from and because the city can't retain a firm even if it has done an excellent job.
The charter amendment, if approved, would require the city to advertise for proposals from auditing firms every five years but would not require a mandatory change every five years. The currently serving auditor at that time could compete for another five years in the job.
We are troubled by the possibility that the same firm could serve an unlimited number of five-year terms as auditor. Evidence of financial mismanagement or fraud has surfaced in the city of Safety Harbor and several Pinellas nonprofit agencies in the last two years, and in some of those cases, a long-serving external auditor did not pick up on the problem. Were the auditors too cozy with the officials they had long served or were they relying on assumptions made in previous years?
Better to bring in a pair of fresh eyes every five years, even in a city government where there is no indication of financial mismanagement.
On the charter amendment, the Times recommends a no vote.
Opportunity to respond: The Times offers candidates not recommended an opportunity to write a response for publication. Responses may be no more than 250 words and may not attack opponents. Submit responses by noon Wednesday to Diane Steinle, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756. Or they may be faxed to her attention to (727) 445-4119 or e-mailed to email@example.com.