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In Clearwater, a crowded field of council candidates zeroes in on the issues

With nine candidates running for two council seats and four vying for mayor, the season’s first forum served as an introduction.

CLEARWATER — From affordable housing and climate change to economic development and Scientology, the first candidate forum of the season laid out the breadth issues the new City Council will face after the March 17 election.

It also highlighted the size of the field. Thirteen candidates are running for three seats, and they all showed up to make their case to voters.

The forum, hosted by residents Lori Green and Ron Ogden at the St. Petersburg College Clearwater library, attracted an audience of more than 60 people last Saturday morning.

In their opening statements, which took up about half of the forum, candidates touted their backgrounds and laid out priorities from the environment to business development.

For mayor, the candidates are retired attorney and environmental activist Elizabeth “Sea turtle” Drayer, former mayor Frank Hibbard, former council member Bill Jonson and business owner Morton Myers.

The Seat 2 race features filmmaker and Scientology critic Mark Bunker, business owner Mike Mannino, attorney Bruce Rector, retired Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office technology supervisor Eliseo Santana and business owner Lina Teixeira.

Four candidates will compete for Seat 3: retired teacher Kathleen Beckman, incumbent Bob Cundiff, business owner Bud Elias and human resources director Scott Thomas.

RELATED: The Clearwater City Council candidate field is set for March elections

During opening remarks, Bunker was the only candidate to bring up the Church of Scientology’s impact on downtown. He described the church as a “bully" that needs to be confronted. But all 13 candidates spoke on the issue during a brief question-and-answer portion.

Aaron Smith-Levin, a former Scientologist and now a volunteer on Bunker’s campaign, asked the candidates how they would address the church’s behavior if elected.

Responses varied from Hibbard’s view that Scientology is “a corporate entity that needs to be held accountable” to Mannino’s comment that for years officials have been too afraid to even say “the S-word." Several candidates like Elias and Teixeira emphasized they were not giving up on downtown.

Myers said he is not a Scientologist but that his father and two brothers are members of Scientology’s Sea Org workforce. That gives him a unique perspective to work with the city and downtown’s largest landowner, he said.

With time for only three questions from the audience, candidates were also asked about the potential for a Community Redevelopment Agency for the North Greenwood neighborhood. All candidates favored helping elevate the neighborhood and stimulating economic growth.

Only mayoral candidates were asked to address a question on how they’d address climate change.

Hibbard prioritized sea walls and addressing beach erosion. Drayer highlighted the consequences of what she called an overdeveloped Clearwater Beach and the need to raise bridges and roads. Jonson said local government should focus on strategies within its power like reducing energy use and maintaining trees. Myers said his focus is on sustainability.

Additional forums are scheduled for the following dates:

  • Jan. 13: 7 p.m. at Morningside Recreation Center, 2400 Harn Blvd., hosted by Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition for Seat 2 and 3 candidates.
  • Jan. 22: 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 407 S Saturn Ave., hosted by Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition for mayoral candidates.
  • Feb. 11: 7 p.m. at the Main Library, 100 N Osceola Ave, hosted by the City of Clearwater for mayoral candidates.
  • Feb. 12: 7 p.m. at the Main Library, 100 N Osceola Ave., hosted by the City of Clearwater for Seat 2 and 3 candidates.

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