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Who’s listening? Clearwater City Council Seat 3 candidates all say they are.

Incumbent Bob Cundiff says he’s spent his time on council listening. But his three rivals don’t think Clearwater’s government is hearing what people have to say.
The candidates running for Clearwater City Council Seat 3 are (left to right) Kathleen Beckman, Robert "Dr. Bob" Cundiff, Bud Elias and Scott Thomas. [Tampa Bay Times]

CLEARWATER — Bob Cundiff was elected to the City Council on a platform of listening to residents’ concerns.

Now, the 75-year-old incumbent is being challenged by three candidates — insurance broker Bud Elias, retired teacher Kathleen Beckman and human resources professional Scott Thomas — who say the council isn’t hearing the people of Clearwater.

Related: VOTER's GUIDE: Where the candidates for Clearwater mayor, City Council stand on nine issues

During that first campaign in 2016, Cundiff promised to hold feedback sessions with residents all over the city. He often notes that he kept that promise: he’s held events for residents in all five of the city’s libraries. At City Council meetings, he is often the least talkative member. He’s a longtime communications professor at St. Petersburg College who says listening is his default setting.

Clearwater City Council Seat 3 member Bob Cundiff is running for reelection. [Bob Cundiff]

Cundiff has also championed the planned 4,000-seat amphitheater that, if built, will tower over the proposed $64 million Imagine Clearwater project.

Beckman, 55, and Thomas, 30, have criticized the amphitheater, arguing most residents don’t want it.

Elias, 81, supports the amphitheater — but he says his top priority is improving communication between the city and its neighborhoods.

Cundiff has defended the amphitheater, saying residents had an upgraded concert venue in mind when they voted overwhelmingly in 2017 to allow the city to build on the waterfront (although council added to the project after that vote.)

Related: Clearwater election could clinch — or kill — downtown amphitheater

“The easiest thing to criticize, especially if you’re running for office, is a $64 million project,” Cundiff said at a Jan. 27 council work session.

Cundiff’s is one of three City Council seats and six referendum questions that will be decided in this election. Voters will hit the polls on March 17. This has been Clearwater’s most active election in years, but there hasn’t been much conflict between the Seat 3 candidates — until Monday, that is.

That’s when Cundiff’s campaign emailed a press release bashing his “hypocritical” opponents for planting campaign yard signs.

Clearwater City Council Seat 3 candidate Kathleen Beckman. [KATHLEEN BECKMAN | Kathleen Beckman]

“How can a candidate on one hand claim to be concerned with open green spaces and the environment, and then plant hundreds of unsightly signs on busy streets and in neighborhoods?” the campaign said.

The email blast noted that signs have been put up by all the Seat 3 candidates — except Cundiff. The press release’s biggest target may be Beckman, who has made the environment the focal point of her campaign.

Beckman has been endorsed by the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club. She often talks about how the city must do more to prepare for sea level rise and climate change. Beckman pushed for a new rule that would have made City Council consider the environmental impact of each new policy it voted on. It was not adopted by the council.

Related: Climate change is also on the ballot in Clearwater’s election

In response to Cundiff’s email, Beckman, noted that she would collect her signs and reuse them in “environmentally friendly ways.”

Elias and Cundiff both say the city is moving in the right direction when it comes to sustainability. Each candidate has touted the city’s efforts to replace thousands of energy-inefficient street light bulbs with more efficient LED ones.

Thomas said he supports the efforts of Clearwater’s new sustainability coordinator, but he doesn’t believe the city’s government needs to reduce its use of atmosphere-warming fossil fuels.

At 30, Thomas is also the youngest candidate in the field by a quarter century, and the only candidate besides Cundiff with recent experience in elected office. He served on a small local school board in Pennsylvania before he moved to Clearwater in 2018.

Clearwater City Council Seat 3 candidate Scott Thomas. [Scott Thomas]

The local Fraternal Order of Police chapter and Amplify Clearwater — the local chamber of commerce — have endorsed him. He’s running on a platform of making Clearwater more transparent and business friendly.

But it is Elias, whom the police union also endorsed, and whom the Clearwater Fire Fighter Association Local 1158 endorsed, who has raised the most money in the race: almost $50,000, according to the latest campaign documents. The only other candidate who’s come even close to matching that is Beckman, but much of the $33,000 she has raised so far comes from her own family.

By comparison, Cundiff has raised just over $13,500, barely edging the nearly $11,000 raised by Thomas.

Clearwater City Council Seat 3 candidate Bud Elias. [Bud Elias]

Elias is running on his decades of leadership experience in Clearwater, serving as former chairman of the board of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and as former president of Leadership Pinellas.

Although he’s the incumbent, Cundiff has struggled to match the fundraising totals of Beckman or Elias and rack up the kinds of endorsements that Thomas has.

But Cundiff was handily out-spent during his first race, too. He still won with 53 percent of the vote, getting 12,071 votes. In a four-person race, the outcome could be even closer this year.

Related: Clearwater’s six election referendum questions, explained

correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the candidate endorsed by Clearwater Fire Fighter Association Local 1158; stated that Kathleen Beckman served on the Clearwater Charter Review Committee; and misstated the amount raised by Bob Cundiff.

2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS

City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:

MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to mailballot@votepinellas.com or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.

EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.

ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

VOTER’S GUIDE: The Tampa Bay Times asked the 13 candidates to respond to nine questions. Here’s where they stand on the issues.

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