NEW PORT RICHEY — A diverse field of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for the April 9 elections, where two City Council seats are up for grabs.
Incumbent Bob Langford will face off against Chopper Davis, Michael Malterer, Ginny Miller, Rose Mohr, Jeffrey Starkey and Jonathan Tietz.
At a candidate forum Wednesday evening, Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said 341 absentee ballots have been cast, for a 4 percent turnout already among the city's 8,422 registered voters. Last year's City Council election drew just 5 percent of the city's voters overall.
"So we're probably going to at least double that, which is not where it should be, but certainly a step in the right direction," Corley said.
Langford, 70, has spent nine years on the council and is seeking another three years. Initially, he announced he would not be running again, but said he changed his mind because he feared a first-year learning curve for a new council member might stall the economic progress he believes the city has made.
Improving public safety topped the list of concerns among the candidates.
"Crime is affecting the quality of life in the city," Langford said. "When I'm hearing from people they are afraid to walk in Sims Park at night, that's not right."
Davis, Starkey and Tietz have also made public safety the pillar of their campaigns.
Davis, 65, said he has been a burglary victim three times and is fed up with the crime in the city. As a council member, he said, he would work to establish neighborhood watch programs and an educational format for people to become more informed about crime trends in the area.
For example, he said, the crimes committed against him happened during the day.
"I think it's a daytime problem more than a nighttime problem," he said.
Tietz, 24, said a rash of car burglaries in his neighborhood was a major factor in his decision to run. He said he wants to upgrade streetlights and work with police administration to find effective ways of patrol to crack down on drug deals, which are often done in the open.
"I see it on a daily basis," Tietz said.
Starkey, 38, who grew up in the city and still lives just off U.S. 19, said he wants the council to adopt a nuisance abatement ordinance that would give New Port Richey and police extra teeth in combatting troubled properties — namely motels — that draw endless calls for the service.
"I would rather see those motels vacant with boards on their windows that to have the crime they breed continue," Starkey said. "It's a slap in the face."
Former City Council member Ginny Miller said she, too, is concerned about crime and believes it can be addressed not only by law enforcement but revitalization efforts in the city's run-down interior neighborhoods. She said New Port Richey needs to be a more walkable place with safe parks that draw families.
"We have a critical public safety problem in some of our residential neighborhoods that must be — and are being — addressed now," said Miller, who works in a dropout prevention program at Gulf Middle School. "I am acutely aware of the family issues my at-risk students and their families face daily."
All of the candidates agree that tackling the crime issue will be the key to bringing new businesses to the city and redevelopment efforts such as the Hacienda Hotel. Mohr, 65, a downtown business owner, said she brings the business perspective to the ballot and that she will work to open communication lines between the business community and the city.
"I think there's really not a voice for local business," she said. "I just think there's so much potential downtown."
Malterer, 24, said he, too, wants to see a thriving downtown and said he will work to make the permitting process easier to navigate for business owners seeking to locate in the city.
He would also like to see a reduction in property taxes.
"We have high property taxes in the city," he said. "That's something that definitely deters ownership."