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Safety Harbor pro-preservation candidates prevail in two of three races

Incumbent city commissioners Nancy Besore and Cliff Merz held off challengers.
Candidates Nancy Besore, left, Cliff Merz, center, and Andy Steingold, right, prevailed in Tuesday's Safety Harbor City Commission elections.
Candidates Nancy Besore, left, Cliff Merz, center, and Andy Steingold, right, prevailed in Tuesday's Safety Harbor City Commission elections. [ City of Safety Harbor | Andy Steingold ]
Published Mar. 10
Updated Mar. 10

SAFETY HARBOR — The city’s pro-preservation camp largely won out in Tuesday’s City Commission races.

In the contentious race for commission seat 3, Andy Steingold soundly defeated opponent Scott Long with 58 percent of the vote.

Incumbent Safety Harbor City Commissioner Nancy Besore secured 44 percent of the vote to keep her spot in the three-way race for seat 1. Both Besore and Steingold had support from a contingent of the coastal city that prioritizes its small-town charm over modern-day development.

But in commission seat 2, incumbent Cliff Merz defeated challenger Liz Lindsay, a planning board member who studies and designs self-sustaining environments and had the support of the city’s preservationists. Merz kept his seat with about 55 percent of the vote.

Related: Pinellas 2021 municipal election results

Steingold, Besore and Merz could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Many of the names on the ballot Tuesday were familiar to Safety Harbor’s electorate.

Steingold is an attorney who is heavily involved in local politics. In 2012 he resigned as Safety Harbor mayor to run unsuccessfully for judge. Then in 2014 he returned to defeat Joe Ayoub, an accountant and CFO who now serves as the city’s mayor.

Long is a former commissioner. Besore is a retired Hillsborough County social studies teacher who served her first term on the commission from 2009-14, then returned in 2018. Merz is a a three-term commissioner.

Tuesday’s results perhaps underscore the divide in residents’ vision for their city. Safety Harbor has grappled in recent years with whether to maintain its charming, small-town feel, or pave the way for development amid the city’s rising profile.

That debate took center stage in last year’s mayoral race between incumbent Joe Ayoub and Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic. The race grew especially contentious even for Safety Harbor, where local politics have an involved, vocal following and City Commission meetings often stretch into the night.

Related: In Safety Harbor, ‘townies versus the developers’ dominates city commission races

Ayoub supporters advertised a website, informedsafetyharbor.com, that they said offered “objective” information on Vidovic. She said the claims were half-truths and disputed them on her own website.

Then, a citizens’ group of more than 100 Ayoub detractors issued a statement questioning his political donations and accusing him of catering to developers.

“We are not opposed to growth,” the release said. “What concerns us is high-density development that is out of character with our town and is pursued without proper, meaningful community input.”

Despite the animosity, Ayoub won by a landslide, defeating Vidovic with two-thirds of the vote.

This year’s City Commission races were less vitriolic, but the preservation-development debate persisted.