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Growth war puts Martohue in the hot seat

(ran Beach edition)

The race for the District 1 City Commission seat is tightening up with considerable efforts by a group opposing the city's redevelopment plans and incumbent Deborah Martohue as a proxy for those plans.

In the northern part of the city, Citizens for Responsible Growth has been blanketing neighborhoods with literature for Martohue opponent Mike Finnerty, along with CRG's own fliers. The claims in the fliers are raising questions and forcing Martohue to vigorously defend a seat once thought safe.

At a meeting Saturday of the North Beach Civic Association, Martohue faced questions from CRG over an ethics charge one of the group's members filed. Martohue has addressed the issue before in public but has been quiet since it became a formal ethics complaint.

"People file lawsuits and ethics complaints every day," she said of the claim that she had a conflict of interest for work she did for a former owner of the Travelodge. She has said anyone can file an ethics complaint and that the Florida Commission on Ethics has to investigate. "I was advised by the city attorney, the county attorney and the attorney for the Pinellas Planning Council that there is no conflict."

The issue stems from Martohue's legal work for Tony Amico, who profited from the sale of the Travelodge while the city was discussing plans to enhance development opportunities in the resort area where it lies. Those plans have never become final, though, so there is some question whether the sale could be connected. The ethics commission won't confirm the existence of an investigation, so there are no clues as to the merits of CRG's claims.

Still, the charge causes Martohue problems, as do CRG fliers about the city's plans to foster mixed-use development and taller hotels to promote tourism. The City Commission has said it will not take people's property for economic development, but CRG and Finnerty keep raising the issue of eminent domain.

Martohue said she has received phone calls from district residents who fear that the city wants to take their homes. She said she has to reassure them there are no such plans. She talks of one 92-year-old woman who called Martohue crying but later became irate about the fliers after hearing Martohue's explanation.

Finnerty brought up eminent domain when speaking to the civic association as well. He said it was one of his campaign themes, along with making sure people can vote on redevelopment plans and restoring civility to government meetings. Martohue often spars in meetings with Commissioner Ed Ruttencutter, a CRG favorite who is also running for re-election in District 3.

"I'm sure she's done a fantastic job," Finnerty told the group. "But maybe I can bring a different perspective so we don't have the bickering and hollering."

Finnerty was asked about his support for a vote on redevelopment even though a judge has said such a vote could be an illegal conflict with state law. He said that's for the courts to settle, but that "people should be able to call a vote."

Finnerty said he favors redevelopment and buildings "as high as people want them" after a vote. The city has said its plans are aimed at making hotel redevelopment more attractive than condominiums as a way to keep and enlarge tourism. Annette Reifschneider, the civic association's vice president, asked Finnerty what he would do to help in that regard.

"I don't know what the answer to that is," he said. "Maybe an aquarium. I don't know what will bring tourism to the beach."

The hotel issue is doubly pertinent for CRG. Redevelopment votes typically run 4-1 in favor, but Commissioner Deborah Nicklaus, a hotelier, must recuse herself from votes on the resort district, meaning a victory for Finnerty could shift the large hotel vote against the city's plans. Nicklaus is also the target of a CRG member's ethics complaint.

Civic association members pressed Finnerty about his ties to CRG. He said he is not a member, although he admits he was recruited to run by the organization's founder and its major donor. He said he wasn't aware of the connection at the time he was courted.

Some association members questioned Finnerty's devotion to the city if, in his 12 years of residence in the district, he never attended their meetings. They said Martohue regularly consults with them and handles their problems.