Tiny St. Pete Beach, population about 8,800, is witnessing a nasty mayor’s race complete with partisanship and attack mailers from shell political committees, centering on the issue of beach development.
Making the bitter race even more incongruous for a small town, the battle — between two-term incumbent Alan Johnson and challenger Adrian Petrila — is for mayor. But it’s a weak mayor system in which the person who wins is essentially only one of five city commission votes. They have a fancier title, get to run meetings but a city manager runs the city’s day-to-day operations.
St. Pete Beach is the site of the legendary Don CeSar hotel and popular Pass-a-Grille Beach, but also residential neighborhoods. Many residents oppose intense beach development, hoping to preserve the small-town character, and both candidates say that’s their goal.
“Protecting St. Pete Beach from becoming the next Clearwater Beach,” Petrila said of his reason for running.
“I prefer nothing to change, but I’m not naïve enough to believe it won’t,” said Johnson.
But Petrila claims Johnson has raised taxes and is in the pocket of developers who want to line the beach with big hotels; Johnson says Petrila is a newcomer with a history of financial irresponsibility who doesn’t understand local government. Both hotly deny each other’s allegations.
Mailers attacking Petrila are coming from a committee associated with prominent West Palm Beach-based political consultant Rick Asnani, but using a UPS store in St. Pete Beach as its address.
Mailers attacking Johnson are coming from a committee linked to Tampa-based Republican political operative Anthony Pedicini.
Johnson is a Democrat and Petrila a Republican; the race is non-partisan.
One anti-Johnson mailer called Johnson a “Charlie Crist Democrat” with a “woke agenda” who helped “smear” Ron DeSantis, adding, “Republicans beware.”
“Outsider Adrian Petrila is too risky,” said a mailer from the other side. “We can’t trust Petrila.”
Both candidates deny responsibility for the committees’ mailers.
“It’s become a convoluted mess,” said Johnson, which no one denies.
Petrila, son of a Romanian immigrant family, said he moved to St. Pete Beach about five years ago but lived in Florida, including Tampa, since the 1990s. He said he built and sold a large real estate brokerage business and still works as a broker.
He acknowledges having a home foreclosure. There is an IRS tax lien on his record, but Petrila says financial problems he experienced in the late 2000s were “something that happened to many people then.” He declined to discuss Johnson’s allegation that he doesn’t own property in the city under his own name, saying he and his wife bought a house there.
Johnson said the city property tax rate hasn’t gone up during his tenure. He acknowledged that rising property values have increased tax bills, but said since he took office the city has spent $50 million on badly needed public improvements including rebuilding two main roads, Pass-a-Grille Way and Blind Pass Road; a installing a new sewer main, and catching up on years of neglected maintenance.
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He said he has fought to prevent overbuilding as much as possible under the legal constraints of the city’s comprehensive plan, and kept new developments under the plan’s limits. Tighter restrictions, he said, could lead to a lawsuit that could bankrupt the city.
The election is Tuesday.