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Published Feb. 2, 2011

A month from the Tampa city elections, the crowded mayoral race is getting most of the attention. But the City Council elections have a distinctive flavor, too, and candidates in those races bring varied agendas, styles and life experiences to the table. What's remarkable is not the number of candidates but the depth on a range of issues that so many would bring to City Hall. The public may have a sour view of Tallahassee and Washington, but these candidates - almost without exception - take great pride in the city and see local government as a relevant and positive force.

Of course, not everyone's ready for prime time. One candidate in an interview with the Timeseditorial board said he would resolve land-use disputes by summoning the warring sides and cutting a deal over coffee at a South Tampa bakery. Another's solution to traffic in New Tampa is to raise the speed limit on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. An incumbent bragged about her influence with Mayor Pam Iorio by boasting that she dealt only with employees who worked for the chief of staff. (Everyone works for the chief of staff.) Yet another candidate described the council as "the legislative branch of the mayor's office." That may have been the reality under Iorio, but the city charter has other ideas. As a former mayoral aide told me last week: "This is what you get from a governmental body that is sworn in on April Fool's Day."

Several candidates don't belong on student council, much less City Council. A couple are in it for the money or the chance to launch a political career. But the vast majority are already active in their communities and see the council as an extension of their public service. The new council members who take office in April almost surely will be younger, perhaps by 20 years. That generational divide can be seen in the call by many for Tampa to create more clean industry jobs and for city employees to shoulder more of their benefits and pension costs as a way to balance the budget.

Most candidates accept that the City Council has little authority under Tampa's strong-mayor form of government. But there also is a common desire to do more than harass the mayor for stoplights and sidewalks. The candidates want to carve a new niche for the legislative branch. Even the Tampa natives among them understand that the neighborhoods and the technical demands on the city bureaucracy have changed. A few are clueless about the time and transparency the job requires. But most got in for the right reasons, and they have energy and a feel for the concerns they are raising after knocking on lots of doors.

It's too early to tell whether this election will leave Tampa in good hands. That depends on what voters decide. But the candidates for the council - win or lose - represent a new crop of political leadership. This bunch will be around a while, and voters need to take a serious look at more than who becomes the next mayor. Earl Lennard, the county's elections supervisor, rubbed his hands anxiously last week like a kid before Christmas. He hopes the crowded ballot will push voter turnout beyond the pathetic 16 percent that cast a ballot in 2007. Voters have many candidates to choose from, but they need to do their homework. It's usually harder for politicians to fake competency the closer they are to home.