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Incumbents in Belleair Shore taken by surprise

Published Oct. 2, 2005

In this tiny town on the Gulf of Mexico where elected officials often serve until they die or move away, three incumbents have apparently lost their seats on the Town Commission.

Incumbents William Krohn, 76, Jerry Prescott, 57, and Bob Schmidt, 57, failed to file qualifying papers for a city election scheduled for Tuesday. The three said they had no idea anyone wanted their jobs.

"What we have over here is a volunteer situation," said Krohn, who has served on the commission for no pay for two decades. "We only serve because there is a need."

Traditionally, no one files to run for office in Belleair Shore, an exclusive residential community of 71 residents. When a vacancy occurs on the five-member board, the remaining commissioners talk a neighbor into filling the post. At election time when no opponents surface, the incumbents carry on without bothering to file requalifying papers.

Not so this year.

Recently, Carra Best, 56, Jane Rutenberg, 49, and Madge Wagner, 79, decided to seek office.

Best said she is unhappy about the animosity building between Belleair Shore and neighboring Belleair Beach over beach access and other matters.

"I love where I live," Best said. "I intend to live here for a long time. But I'm a peace-loving person, and I believe you have to act reasonably when it comes to your neighbors."

Best lives next door to Belleair Shore's mayor, George Jirotka. The mayor said Best and the other two candidates are his friends. He said he suggested they file as candidates.

The commission "is not making the progress it should be making," Jirotka said.

Belleair Shore is the town where in 1995, two women were ticketed for drinking coffee on the beach. The town agreed to drop the charges.

It is the same town where in 1996, then-mayor Bob Clayton flashed a gold-plated badge and demanded that two beach visitors leave a beach easement. Clayton was convicted of battery and criminal mischief. Also, Belleair Shore opted out of a multimillion-dollar beach renourishment project because it would have meant allowing public access to the shore.

Jirotka was named mayor in May 1996 when Clayton resigned during legal troubles. Since his election, Jirotka has maintained a moderate approach in the town's dealings with Belleair Beach and other issues. Often his efforts have been thwarted by other commission members.

"I feel like the majority of the people in this town want us to clean this up," Jirotka said.

But Krohn and others say Jirotka is guilty of dirty tricks.

"He sat on those applications until such a time nobody else could apply," Krohn said.

Prescott, a commissioner for four years, said Jirotka "is an attorney; he should know better."

Krohn and Earl Slosberg, a commissioner who, like Jirotka, has one year remaining in his term, say the three candidates should have applied to the entire commission instead of submitting their applications to Jirotka. Jirotka should have notified the commission members that other candidates had qualified, Slosberg and Krohn say.

"I'm sorry the residents of Belleair Shore were denied the opportunity to vote for a resident of their choice," Krohn said.

Dot Ruggles, the county's supervisor of elections, said her office has no jurisdiction over Belleair Shore's elections. "No one has jurisdiction over the town except the town fathers," Ruggles said.

She said she has never known Belleair Shore to have an election. Usually a Belleair Shore official will call her office in October to say there will be no election, she said.

That is what happened this year. Jirotka called Ruggles in October, she said. "He said only three people qualified, and there would be no election."

Jirotka said the three new commissioners will be sworn in Tuesday or Wednesday at his home, which is where the town's monthly commission meetings take place.

But that was not a sure bet Friday afternoon. Prescott, Krohn and Slosberg called a special town meeting for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Sheraton Sand Key in Clearwater.

"I do not believe (Jirotka) can legally do what he did and stab three people in the back," Slosberg said.