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CLEARWATER // Incumbents battle with newcomers

Mayor Rita Garvey and Commissioner Sue Berfield are facing what some think are the toughest challenges of their political careers. Fred Thomas, the controversial commissioner, is stepping down. A slate of newcomers wants to replace him.

Nobody can say Clearwater's city elections have been dull.

In the mayor's contest, the voters have been treated to a campaign of contrasts.

James Warner, 48, president of VIP Realty on Sand Key, says his campaign is about a "fresh, new start for Clearwater." He has criticized Garvey and the commission for lacking concrete plans to deal with the city's problems. He has proposed building a hotel near the Harborview Center and bringing upscale retailers downtown.

"I'm going to be everywhere," Warner said. "This won't be a part-time job for me."

Meanwhile, Garvey, 50, has said she would continue her personal, small-town style of leadership. She prides herself in being accessible to residents and says the most important issues facing the city are boosting tourism and downtown development. She notes the work she has done in bringing a weekend farmers' market to Station Square Park.

"If people never come downtown, they'll never realize there's something they can be a part of," she said. "The more activities we have downtown to bring people downtown, the better."

In the race for commission Seat 3, the candidates have spent much of the campaign attacking each other.

Challenger Ed Hooper has criticized incumbent Berfield for being "part of the problem," citing her support for the city's two high-cost capital projects: the Harborview Center and the municipal services building.

Berfield, meanwhile, has criticized Hooper, a firefighter/paramedic in the city for 24 years, for his leadership of the local firefighters' union. She has attacked him for having "unbalanced interests" and predicts he will be unable to objectively negotiate issues dealing with salaries and benefits.

The race for Commission Seat 2 pits three people who never have held elected office.

Matthew Bodack, a 36-year-old letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, has focused on an anti-government theme. He wants Clearwater to adopt a strong mayor form of government, rather than the city manager form it has now.

Bill Kirbas, 69, a financial adviser for American Express, has stressed neighborhood rights, fiscal responsibility and building a unified Clearwater.

Karen Seel, 37, the former controller of an architectural firm and past Junior League president, has spent the campaign discussing economic redevelopment of the city's downtown and beach areas. She also has talked of keeping a watchful eye on the city's fiscal practices.

THE RACES: Voters will elect a mayor and two commissioners when they go to the polls Tuesday. In the race for mayor, voters will choose between incumbent Mayor Rita Garvey and challenger James Warner. In the race for Commission Seat 2, which will be vacated by Commissioner Fred Thomas, there are three candidates: Matthew Bodack, Bill Kirbas and Karen Seel. In the race for Seat 3, incumbent Sue Berfield is being challenged by Ed Hooper.

THE JOBS: The new commissioners will make $15,000 a year, up from the current salary of $10,000. The mayor will make $18,000, up from the current $12,000. They will take their oaths of office April 4 and serve three-year terms.

REFERENDUM: Since 1994, the city charter has required a referendum before leasing property designated as recreation and open space, such as Jack Russell Stadium, several public golf courses and concession stands at the beach. The proposed amendment would allow the leasing of that property without a referendum. A "yes" vote would approve the amendment and allow the city to lease the properties without a referendum. A "no" vote would leave the charter the way it is.

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