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Voters cast airport's fate today

After being bombarded for months by mass mailings and yard signs, voters finally go to the polls today to decide the fate of Albert Whitted Airport.

Fatigued campaign workers say they're relieved the end is near.

"Everybody's happy it's election day," said Peter Belmont, chairman of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park.

City Clerk Eva Andujar said her office has received few phone calls about the election, which may foreshadow low voter participation. With only two contested City Council races, there is little on the ballot to attract voters beyond the Albert Whitted referendum questions.

But Randy York, chairman of the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee, said he thinks the airport issue will lure people to the polls.

"It's finally coming to a close," he said. "People will finally be able to vote, and I'm optimistic that we're going to have a lot of people come out."

As of 5 p.m. Friday, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office had received 2,904 of the 5,159 absentee ballots sent out, said Joan Brock, deputy supervisor. There have also been 251 people who voted early, she said.

Polls will be open citywide from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Voters will decide whether to preserve Albert Whitted, or get rid of it and build a waterfront park on at least half the property.

Also on the ballot, two City Council members are defending their seats against challengers. In District 3, incumbent Bill Foster faces off against his former Northeast High School football coach, Bill Dudley.

In District 1, council member Richard Kriseman is being challenged by Dennis Homol, a maintenance worker for All Children's Hospital.

The two men ran against one another in 2001, with Kriseman winning 75 percent of the vote.

Most of the attention in this election has been on the airport debate.

Volunteers for both factions spent the weekend in a final frenzy of campaigning, going door to door to distribute literature and blanketing the city with yard signs.

Campaign finance reports released Monday show both sides received a considerable boost in the final days before the election.

Citizens for a New Waterfront Park received about $45,000 in the past two weeks, bringing the total amount to $146,187.

The group's two most generous donors again contributed most of the money. Retired businessman James MacDougald gave $8,400,and defense attorney Larry Beltz donated $24,000.

Beltz has contributed more than $64,000 to the campaign so far, while MacDougald gave about $50,000.

The Albert Whitted Political Action Committee raised a comparatively modest $23,000 in the same period for a total of $34,603. However, a national pilots' organization that got involved in the campaign last week has already spent $79,403 to preserve the airport.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association spent about $20,000 for political consulting services, $25,000 for direct mail and about $26,000 on advertisements.

Belmont accused the airport supporters of trying to hide their donors because the AOPA has not registered as a political action committee.

"Where did the money for their campaign come from?" he asked. "Everybody can see where we got ours."

Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president, said the group does not have to register as a political committee because it is not soliciting contributions from the public. But it did file a list of its expenditures with the City Clerk's office.

Dunn said his agency has an interest in preserving all of the country's airports.

"It has been said that this is a local issue," he said. "It is, but it also has tremendous national implications."

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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