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Runoff could swing commission

(ran Beach, South, West editions)

Danny Walker could be an election away from losing his job as city manager.

After 24 years with the city of St. Pete Beach, his fate may hinge on an April 1 runoff, an up-until-now bland race.

"I have no comment," said Walker when asked if he is worried about his $70,910 job after last week's city election.

When an investigation concluded that Walker used sexual humor on an almost daily basis, one city commissioner, Saranan Lauck, called for his resignation. The remaining four commissioners supported probation.

The recent elections may unearth the issue.

Last week, a man who campaigned on a promise to fire Walker was elected to the District 4 commission seat. In a few weeks, residents of District 2 will choose between a candidate who also said he would vote to terminate Walker and a candidate who supports the past commission's decision to put Walker on probation.

Lauck, meanwhile, is not saying what position she would take if a commissioner made a new motion to dismiss Walker.

"I never know what I'm going to do until I get up there," she said last week.

The elections also speak of the mood of residents and may signal a power shift, political observers say.

"I think it was almost a rebellion vote," said Lornie Mueller, president of the Corey Area Business Association.

In District 4, residents elected John Bailey, an activist who spoke against the establishment. In District 2, the top vote-getter by 20 votes was Jim Myers, a virtual unknown to city politics. He faces Maria Repas, who has backing within the business community.

"I think that it indicates a change is in the wind for the political structure here," Pass-a-Grille resident Jay King, 65, said of the election result. "We had one commissioner for 12 years and he had certain supporters in key positions. I think that this will bring about a change."

The vocal critic wins

The hot race was District 4, the area that encompasses historic Pass-a-Grille, Vina Del Mar and the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa.

It was Bailey and Robert P. Sulte, a contractor and landlord with the support of a builder and a few other businessmen. Bailey had the backing of a former mayor and grass-roots residents, including one with a court injunction for contacting city commissioners and distributing materials to them.

Bailey won by 115 votes and replaced Bruno Falkenstein, the 12-year commissioner who did not seek re-election.

"I just went for the more aggressive one. New blood," said Helen Galvin, 79, who voted for Bailey. "A change of politics. Not the power structure that's been around."

Ann Michael, 72, has attended City Commission meetings since 1984. She voted for Sulte and served as his campaign treasurer.

"I went to Publix yesterday and I ran into several Pass-a-Grille residents who just can't believe that Bob lost," she said. "I can't believe it myself."

Michael says she will be watching Bailey closely. "Let him put his money where his mouth is."

Bailey, 49, is an art gallery owner who wears Birkenstock sandals. On a recent afternoon, he grooved to the Jimmy Buffett song Jamaica Mistaica in his Eighth Avenue gallery.

"Your average commissioner, right?" he joked.

He drives a 1986 Chrysler station wagon with more than 207,000 miles. "If the engine quits," he says, "I'm going to drop a new one in it."

A vocal critic and regular at City Commission meetings, Bailey used minefield issues in his campaign platform.

Among them, the sexual harassment issue and commercial intrusion. He talked of "trying to put freedom and liberty in government."

Last April, the election was almost a year away and Bailey had not decided to run. He opposed a proposal to increase density, the number of living units allowed per acre on Pass-a-Grille and Vina Del Mar.

He said such a change would spur development and ruin the charm of Pass-a-Grille, where he leases a house and lives with his wife and 5-year-old son.

And so began a movement to preserve Pass-a-Grille. A marquee on a vacant building still reads: PRESERV PASS AGRILLE.

Bailey's opposition to development and commercial intrusion struck Ron and Darla Heeter, who moved six months ago to Vina Del Mar from Austin, Texas. They voted for him.

"I like the idea of the small neighborhood," Mr. Heeter, 41, said.

"No more development," Mrs. Heeter, 38, added.

Redevelopment dominates the issues

People visit Pass-a-Grille for a slice of old Florida.

Quaint cracker houses and motels dot Gulf Way, the sundrenched strip along the shore. It is a laid-back tourist draw, where more visitors than residents gather in front of the concession stand to munch on french fries and watch the orange sun dip below the horizon.

Steve Milkey, 52, a Michigan resident, was there the day after the election. He has been coming to Pass-a-Grille on and off for 20 years and does not want it changed.

"I like this clear white sand and the sun is marvelous just before it sets," said Milkey, as he gazed over the shimmering gulf. "I think how peaceful and beautiful it is because there's no people out there. It's not evil out there. It's clean and peaceful. It reminds me of God's creation."

At 6:42 p.m, as the sun vanished, a bell rang. The end of another day.

Terry Gannon, a real estate agent, former mayor and adviser to Bailey's campaign, said the dominant issue on St. Pete Beach has been land and the developers' interest in redevelopment.

"The developers want to have more units per acre and the citizens don't," he said.

"The real money that is going to be made on St. Pete Beach is going to be made by redevelopment, and in order to make real dollars, you have to change the density," said Gannon, who said he is not ruling out a run at the mayor's seat next year. "These people don't care about St. Pete Beach. They care about greed."

Paul Skipper, a prominent builder who lives on the beach, said Bailey and his camp used density to rile voters on a non-issue.

"Rather than run on the issues, they drag this stuff up and try to accuse the developers of running the city," said Skipper, who built Captiva Cay townhouses. "I think they've upset the whole harmony of the community."

To keep Walker or not to keep Walker

On election night, Bailey was excited that Myers was the top vote-getter in District 2.

"I hope Danny Walker has his resume," Bailey said. "If Myers gets in and me, Walker's gone. Danny will be so long."

Bailey and Myers said the first issue they would tackle as commissioners would be suggesting Walker's removal.

"How can you build if your government has done something unfair?" Bailey said. "It's like saying "Geez, the foundation is cracked, let's build anyway.' "

Former City Clerk Jane Ellsworth was fired last month, four months after she accused Walker of asking her to a motel after the two officials finished election duties in 1992. An investigation concluded that Walker made the comment, but that Ellsworth leveled the charge when she felt her position as city clerk was being undermined.

Edward D. Foreman, Walker's attorney, said the new commission should give Walker a fair shake and take a rational approach.

"I believe they have a city manager more sensitive to gender bias and related matters than any other city manager they can get," Foreman said. "He's learned it the hard way and knows it better than anyone else."

Repas, who is running in District 2, backs the commissioners' decision to place Walker on probation.

"My first reaction was to fire him," said Repas, 36, operations manager for Jeff's Desserts. "But since that time, they made the decision, and I feel compelled to support it because I want the city to move forward, and if there's another mistake, there are no more chances. Period."

Myers, her opponent, said he would vote to fire Walker, if elected.

"I think it's a moral issue," said Myers, 68, who works part-time at the Florida International Museum.

Walker has a contract with the city until December 1999. It says that if he no longer continues as city manager, he could resume his former duties as director of community services. As director of community services, Walker could be terminated for cause and would be entitled to an appeal and grievance process under city codes.

A letter of reprimand for the city manager

City Manager Danny Walker has been reprimanded after a recent investigation revealed he used sexual humor in the workplace on an almost daily basis. The letter was drafted by Mayor Kevan Finch and City Attorney James DeVito. There is no standard format for letters of reprimand, according to a management and labor lawyer in Tampa. Such letters are considered evidence of counseling or disciplinary action and usually contain reasons for the reprimand, said Tom Gonzalez, a lawyer with the firm of Thompson, Sizemore & Gonzalez. Walker's letter does not address his year's probation, the punishment given him last month by city commissioners. "He is by definition always on probation," Gonzalez said. "All probation means is you can be let go for any reason, and he's got that already if he's an at-will employee." As city manager, Walker is an at-will employee. The city manager is appointed by commissioners and can be removed for any reason.