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Group ready to push for recall of Falkenstein

(ran Beach, East, South editions)

A movement to recall City Commissioner Bruno Falkenstein formalized Thursday as a dozen concerned residents met to form the St. Pete Beach Homeowners and Condominium Owners Association.

Residents at the meeting expressed concern over Falkenstein's and the City Commission's vote to hold the July 3 Spin Doctors concert on Pass-a-Grille in front of the Hurricane restaurant. The concert, they said, is another example of a pattern of Falkenstein's use of his commission seat for personal gain. Falkenstein's family owns and operates the restaurant.

Meeting organizer Chet Chmielewski said he has contacted the state Ethics Commission to inquire whether a vote on concert issues represented a conflict of interest.

"From the limited information I could give them over the phone, Falkenstein was not supposed to vote," Chmielewski said. "The entire City Commission is acting like they don't know what is going on. They think conflict of interest is a joke."

He said the next step _ in addition to having weekly meetings _ is to collect signatures on a petition to send to Gov. Lawton Chiles asking for an investigation of the St. Pete Beach city government, including Falkenstein. He also said he plans to help recruit a candidate to run against Falkenstein.

"We will definitely have a recall election," he said during the meeting at the Warren Webster Community Building. "I have no political ambitions. I hate politics. I got into this only because I couldn't stand it anymore."

Falkenstein said Friday that he while he disagrees with their motivations, he has no problem with residents exercising their constitutional rights.

"This is America. We have the Olympics here, what better way to show freedom," Falkenstein said. "That is their choice."

Chmielewski, 59, ran for a Pinellas County Commission seat in 1974 but lost to Charles E. Rainey.

But not everyone at the meeting shared Chmielewski's views.

Mimi Gewanter, a Falkenstein supporter, said residents' concerns about the concert _ traffic, noise and debris _ occur every weekend on St. Pete Beach. That, she said, is the price for living there.

"It's just jealousy," she said of the handful of naysayers.

For a recall to take place, the association needs 100 signatures of registered voters within Falkenstein's district, which includes Pass-a-Grille and Vina Del Mar. Chmielewski said given the number of telephone complaints to police the night of the concert, he thinks he will get at least that number.

A low meeting turnout, Chmielewski said, was due to a denial by St. Pete Beach City Manager Danny Walker to advertise the gathering on the local access cable, Channel 15.

"As a result of this denial I contacted a law firm prominent in matters of First Amendment issues and was given the opinion that the denial of posting a notice of the recall organizational meeting was a violation of my constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution," Chmielewski said in a letter passed out to residents Thursday.

Walker was not available for comment Friday. However, Acting City Manager Steve Gallaher said the cable channel has never been used for political advertisements. He said this is not the first time Chmielewski has threatened to sue the city, and he called him "local color."

"Basically what goes on (Channel 15) are things that the city is trying to get out to residents," Gallaher said. "It's important for government administration not to takes sides in (politics)."

Chmielewski has 30 days from Thursday's meeting to collect signatures. The petition would be filed with the St. Pete Beach city clerk and the Pinellas County supervisor of elections, whose office would verify the signatures.

Falkenstein can defend the recall by filing a written statement to the city clerk within five days after he's notified of the intent to recall, according to Ethel Baxter, assistant director at the state Division of Elections.

If that occurs, Chmielewski and the association must get an additional 132 signatures from registered voters in the same district. If the petition meets state municipal election law, a judge will set election dates.

John Bailey was one of two residents who said a recall may not be the right first step.

"I am not sure I am crazy about a recall. I may sign a recall petition, I may not. I'll have to think about it," Bailey said. "But I am in favor of an investigation by the state attorney general's office."

Bailey said he is more comfortable having a competent state authority checking into Falkenstein's use of his position rather than making a judgment himself.