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ELECTION: COMMISSION SEAT 4 // Candidates define their differences

Published Jul. 6, 2006

In the final days before the special election, candidates Bernie Baron, Bob Clark and Bill Kirbas find themselves speaking about their differences.

It's true, they concede, many of their positions on issues facing the city are similar. They agree on:

Tourism: The commission should step up its efforts to promote tourism to the beach. All candidates believe the newly created tourism officer for the city will be a big help.

Neighborhood encroachment: The candidates agree that the city should be mindful of commercial uses creeping into residential neighborhoods.

The tower for Clearwater Beach: The candidates all agree now that the proposed tower for the beach is a bad idea. Baron and Clark have always held this position. Kirbas, who supported the tower even before the campaign, has changed his mind.

They're even members of the same political party. The three are Republican, though city elections are non-partisan.

But the similarity is superficial, the candidates say. Their differences, the ones they believe will distinguish them for voters, are in outlook, alignment and approach.

Clark, who owns Clearwater Printing, points to Kirbas' turnaround on the tower issue as a significant difference. Clark said he has held fast to his dislike for a proposed 334-foot tower on Clearwater Beach. Kirbas changed his mind at a recent candidate forum.

"Bill has waffled on the issue," said Clark. "Whatever was expedient was his position of that week. I have not changed my mind on any of the issues since day one."

He also pointed out that he has lived in the city twice as long as either opponent. As a 40-year resident, he said, his roots run deep.

But it is those deep roots that Kirbas attacks. What Clark sees as long-held friendships, Kirbas calls special interests _ small groups of people who want to run the city. Clark is endorsed by the chamber's political arm, CLEARPAC, and the city's unions. Much of the money donated to his campaign comes from these old-line sources.

Kirbas has taken great pains to point out that he is not backed by any special-interest group. His stance throughout the campaign has been one of neighborhoods deciding the city's fate.

"The neighborhoods should take back their cities and determine who governs," Kirbas said. "We shouldn't allow those with money and influence to run our city affairs."

Kirbas has lived on Clearwater Beach during his 11 years in the city and has been involved with groups vocal on beach causes. Many of his donations have been from beach business owners and those active in those groups.

But while those groups sometimes share goals, he says, they don't endorse candidates, unlike the chamber of commerce and union groups backing Clark.

He says his turnaround on the tower was responsive, not calculated. After talking with people on the beach and throughout the city, he found the idea was not well-liked. "I just wanted something down on the beach because they were hurting. But when I heard so many say they didn't like it, I changed my mind."

Baron is truly the man on the outside. His Everyman style earned him some admirers but few donations. His campaign finance reports show $356 in donations, most from his pocket. But Baron says it's an advantage.

"I've been stating all along that I am for the whole city," he said. "Everyone will notice that."

He said he differs from his opponents in his approach to the city and its needs. Throughout his campaign Baron has been a booster for the city, accentuating the positive. "I have a bit more determination and leadership. I am more bound to see the city progress."

The candidates also have a few different opinions on city issues:

The downtown lake: Clark is against the project, thinking it would be a waste of taxpayer money. Kirbas said the project is still in its early phases and could be a boon. Baron worries that if the lake is built, there won't be any developers who can afford to develop housing around it.

The status of commissioners: Baron believes the job of commissioner is a full-time commitment. Both Clark and Kirbas, while acknowledging the job has become time-consuming, say that it should revert to a part-time job.

Ruth Eckerd Hall: The candidates believe the city should not dictate what programs the hall presents. But two candidates _ Kirbas and Clark _ agree with a city resolution asking them to be mindful of community standards. Baron says the city should keep its nose out of it.

The special election takes place Tuesday. The election is to replace Mike Dallmann, who resigned this year after serving less than 40 days in office. In addition to the seat election, voters are being asked to vote on changes to the city's pension program.