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For Dunedin, an agent of change and a city booster

With Mayor John Doglione departing and longtime City Manager John Lawrence already gone, Dunedin faces a time of change and an important election on March 14.

Seven candidates are battling to finish the two years left in the term of city Commissioner Bob Hackworth, who is running for mayor. The seven are political newcomers Ron Barnette, Julie Bujalski, Michael Henkel, Nancy McIntyre and Mike Wallace; former School Board member John Espey, and former city Commissioner Tom Osborne.

Hackworth, now in his second term on the City Commission, is campaigning hard to win the mayor's post, even though his opponent, John T. Conway, has scarcely been seen or heard during the campaign.

Two members of the City Commission whose seats would have been on this ballot, Julie Scales and Dave Eggers, were automatically re-elected when no one filed to run against them.

To prepare for making its editorial recommendations, the Times has conducted a lengthy interview with every candidate except mayoral candidate Conway, who did not show up for his scheduled interview. We have completed extensive background checks on the candidates.

Voters also will find on their ballots four referendum questions on changes to the city charter. We will print our recommendations on those ballot issues at a later date.

We urge all registered voters to go to the polls on March 14 and make their own choices.

For mayor:

Bob Hackworth

Hackworth was new to local politics when he ran for the City Commission in 2002, but his high-energy campaign and his call for more scrutiny and transparency in city government made him the top vote getter among four candidates. His popularity with residents continues. When his term expired last year and he ran for re-election to his seat, no one ran against him. If not for the last-minute appearance of Conway, Hackworth might have won the mayor's post without opposition.

As a candidate in 2002, Hackworth promised to challenge the way things had always been done in City Hall, not in order to upset anyone, but to make sure that Dunedin city government was following best practices. His perspective made him unpopular with those who didn't want change in City Hall - and they have opposed him every step of the way - but he was seen as a change agent to those who felt city government needed new faces and a good airing out.

Hackworth has followed through on his promise to closely scrutinize city business. He pushed for more and better information from the city staff and a more indepth examination of the city budget by the commission. He has consistently supported more openness in city government affairs and a more businesslike approach to decisionmaking. Thanks to his efforts, the city adopted a tougher gift policy that prevents officials from accepting any freebies. Hackworth has sought more inclusiveness in the city. His suggestion that a Dunedin street be named for Martin Luther King Jr. eventually led the commission to support a whole program of diversity activities in the city.

Hackworth has accomplished a lot, even though he often was stymied by a commission majority led by Mayor John Doglione, a Hackworth critic.

Hackworth, who is 50 and is employed at his family's publishing business, said he understands that the job of mayor requires a different style. He promises to work hard to bring people together on important issues facing the city. He also wants to run meetings differently than Doglione did, making sure there is plenty of discussion by commissioners, that residents' comments are welcomed, and that any personal attacks by commissioners are quickly squelched. He wants more city board meetings televised and the city's Web site improved. "Let people peek in and see how this government works," he said. Voters can peek into Hackworth's campaign by visiting his excellent Web site at www.bobhackworth.com.

Hackworth's opponent, John Conway, is a 60-year-old freelance writer who has not been involved in city government. His positions on issues are unknown. He missed a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Dunedin Council of Organizations, failed to return questionnaires sent to him by the Times, and skipped his Times interview. Conway said he was going to withdraw from the race after the Times wrote that he was loosely affiliated with the Church of Scientology, but he later decided to stay in the race.

We strongly recommend Bob Hackworth for mayor of Dunedin.

For City Commission:

Ron Barnette

In this race that attracted seven candidates, two come across as best-informed on current city business and also demonstrate they have the energy and creative ideas needed to govern Dunedin in these times of great challenge for local governments. Those two are Ron Barnette and Julie Ward Bujalski. We believe Ron Barnette is the better choice.

Barnette, 63, retired from Valdosta State University in Georgia in 2002 after spending 30 years there as a professor of philosophy and ethics and an administrator. He also is a certified mediator - a skill that might serve him well in Dunedin city government.

Barnette and his wife discovered Dunedin years ago while traveling in Florida and "fell in love with the charm and character of Dunedin," he said. They bought a home in the city in 1999 so they could visit, and became year-round residents in 2002.

Barnette watched City Commission meetings on television and said he was embarrassed by the arguments, posturing and "gotcha behavior" he saw. He told commissioners they needed to adopt a code of civility and ethics. He wrote one, and they adopted it, but he is frustrated that it isn't always followed.

Barnette has immersed himself in his adopted community. He has been a member of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, the Dunedin Historical Society, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, the Coastal Waterway and Causeway Committee and the Dunedin Health Facilities Authority. He also served on the Task Force on Inclusion created by the City Commission to present recommendations on how to increase inclusiveness in the community and diversity in city government. He regularly volunteers at community events and is an enthusiastic city booster. He is eager to see more creative thinking, more team building and more planning among city officials so that Dunedin's unique charms can be preserved.

Bujalski, 40, lived in Dunedin from 1971 to 1983 and returned in 2001 with her husband to raise their son. An economic forecaster for Patchington, she also serves on the city's Reclaimed Water Ad Hoc Advisory Committee and the Emergency Response Team and volunteers at Garrison-Jones Elementary School.

Bujalski has watched City Commission meetings for several years and can speak at length about city issues as well as regional issues such as affordable housing and growth management.

However, we are uneasy about some of Bujalski's history. In 1984, Bujalski was arrested in Clearwater and charged with felony cultivation of marijuana. She was growing seven marijuana plants in her yard, according to police reports. Bujalski entered a pretrial intervention program and avoided punishment on the charges.

That offense perhaps could be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion, but Bujalski has had other problems. According to public records, she has been ticketed regularly since the mid 1980s for driving offenses, including speeding, disobeying traffic control devices, driving on a suspended license or driving with an expired license. Bujalski said she just hurries too much, but the list of offenses is long enough to be worrisome.

We recommend a vote for Ron Barnette for City Commission.

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Candidates not recommended may submit a response for publication. Responses must be 300 words or less and may not mention the candidate's opponents. Responses must be received by 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 1. Please submit responses to Diane Steinle, St. Petersburg Times, 710 Court St., Clearwater, FL 33756, or they may be faxed to her attention at 445-4119, or e-mailed to steinle@sppimes.com.

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