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Local election season wasn't politics as usual for voters

The North Pinellas election season that began with Dunedin's February election came to a blessed close Tuesday after Tarpon Springs voters finished punching their ballots and checking their chads. Now we can look back and mull over what was different this year, and try to figure out what the election outcomes mean.

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Voters were clearly in the mood to closely examine the records of incumbents. They willingly voted for inexperienced newcomers if they didn't like those records.

Incumbents who had name recognition and were generally intelligent, active officials got dumped by the voters in Dunedin, Largo and Clearwater.

In Dunedin, voters seemed to feel that longtime commissioner and former mayor Cecil Englebert had gotten too cozy with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Canadian baseball team that trains in Dunedin each spring and gave the city a hard time over its spring training contract extension. The voters threw Englebert out of the game on Election Day, leaving him at the bottom of a four-person ballot for two City Commission seats and giving his seat to a candidate who had no political experience and was virtually unknown three months before the election.

In Largo and Clearwater, voters turned out one-term commissioners who were well-known around town, and gave their seats to candidates with no political experience. Both of the incumbents, Mary Laurance in Largo and Ed Hart in Clearwater, were a source of discord on their respective City Commissions and had poor relationships with their city managers. Both also were criticized by some residents as too political. Voters apparently don't want to hear it.

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This was the first local election season since Sept. 11, and if anyone thought that the outpouring of patriotism that followed the terrorist attacks would lead to a big jump in voter participation, they were wrong. Most people still stayed at home and let someone else do the work of democracy.

But neither was voter turnout as pitiful as it has been on occasion in the past. In Dunedin it was 20.1 percent, in Largo 10.13 percent (the best in years), in Safety Harbor 21.8 percent, 23 percent in Tarpon Springs and 18 percent in Clearwater.

Those percentages include people who voted by absentee ballot. Changes in the rules governing absentee ballots make it a breeze for anyone to vote in the comfort of their own home. If the county supervisor of elections will emphasize that, perhaps those percentages will go up in the future.

Sept. 11 and the resulting plummet in the economy did seem to have some impact on the debate in local campaigns. A subject of hot discussion in Dunedin was the amount of money the city should keep in reserve for emergencies given these uncertain times. Clearwater candidates talked about the need to diversify the local economy so it would not be so dependent on tourism dollars. And Largo candidates flocked to support the local police chief's effort to upgrade equipment for police officers.

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The following contests weren't on any ballot, but I'm declaring some winners anyway:

MOST UNIQUE CANDIDATE FORUM: Safety Harbor and the Whistle Stop Cafe win. The owners of this tiny eatery on Main Street near the railroad tracks stepped up to host a public forum prior to Safety Harbor's March 12 election. The event struck me as a little bit of Camp Fire Girls (all four candidates were female) and a lot of folksy Lake Wobegon. The audience members sat on plastic chairs in the dark back yard of the cafe and the candidates perched on bar stools. A wood fire burned in a big iron pot in the center of the group and a fickle breeze blew smoke and ash indiscriminately on everyone. In 20 years of covering elections, it is the first time I've been to a candidate forum where the moderator needed a flashlight to read question cards and the audience members mellowed out over their beers.

MOST ECLECTIC COLLECTION OF CANDIDATES: No doubt about it, the winner in this category is Tarpon Springs and the four men who ran for a City Commission seat. What a lineup. One candidate is a former professional baseball pitcher (he won the game Tuesday). Another is a hair stylist who said he possesses a "God-given gift to communicate," but we know little about his background because he refused to communicate it to us.

The third candidate writes adult fiction for the Internet and sometimes invents things. He brought one of his inventions to a candidate forum to demonstrate how creative he could be. It was a cat cage on wheels that you could use to take your cat for a walk.

The fourth candidate had the most average background of all, and he owns a flag shop _ how common is that?

MOST UNIQUE IDEAS BY CANDIDATES: Tarpon Springs gets this one again. Candidate Joseph Pisani wanted to bring cobblestone streets to the city if he was elected. Shades of olde England! Wouldn't that make your SUV ride nice and smooth?

Candidate Norm Augustinus suggested that the city could make lots of money and perhaps eliminate property taxes by installing piston-driven electric generators under the streets. When cars ran over the pistons, electricity would be produced and could be sold to Florida Power, he said. Otherwise, Augustinus said he had "no priorities . . . except to cause as much chaos as I can."

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Clearwater voters got the fun of initiating the county's new touch-screen voting machines. Other voters will use them for the first time in the September primary.

Don't be intimidated. The instructions distributed by elections officials, which include text and graphics, are a lot more complicated and hard to understand than the actual experience of voting on the machines. It's the easiest thing in the world, and there are no chads to check. Don't worry about it.

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