Madeira Beach voters split, commission majority narrows

Commissioner John Douthirt retains his seat by a 14-vote margin
Madeira Beach Commissioner John Douthirt was re-elected by 14 votes. [Courtesy of John Douthirt]
Madeira Beach Commissioner John Douthirt was re-elected by 14 votes. [Courtesy of John Douthirt]
Published March 14

MADEIRA BEACH — Voters here on Tuesday split their vote between the old guard and the new, appearing to leave the city commission’s anti-large development majority narrower but unchanged.

The official results of the election will be determined Friday after the Pinellas County Canvassing Board meets this morning and the City Commission meets at 4 p.m. to certify the election results.

There is a narrow chance a manual recount could be required in the District 4 race where the incumbent commissioner, John Douthirt, narrowly won re-election Tuesday by just 14 votes.

There are two provisional ballots that were not counted Tuesday night and are awaiting certification by the canvassing board today.

If both votes are valid and were cast for Douthirt’s opponent, former Commissioner Steve Kochick, there is a possibility the result could force a state-mandated manual recount.

The District 3 race had a clear winner in Doug Andrews, who won by a 70-vote margin over J. Roger Pryor. Neither candidate had previously served in elective office.

Andrews is the city’s former recreation director who was fired from his job nearly two years ago by Fire Chief Derryl O’Neal when O’Neal was serving as an interim city manager.

Andrews campaigned as a strong opponent of the decisions made by the current commission.

“I’m fired up and looking forward to digging into this,” Andrews said Wednesday, citing his opposition to the commission’s handling of the recent marina audit and the “scare tactics” the majority has used against hotel development.

Two years ago, voters elected a new mayor and two commissioners who strongly opposed large-scale hotel developments as well as many of the decisions made by the prior commission.

That new three-vote majority quickly took control of the city, forcing former City Manager Shane Crawford to resign, firing his wife, the city clerk, and appointing O’Neal to temporarily run the city.

Last month, O’Neal was found to have violated state ethics laws, was fined over $4,000, and was recently suspended for two weeks without pay.

Meanwhile, one member that commission majority elected two years ago, Nancy Oakley, recently resigned her post after she was also found to have violated state ethics laws by sexually harassing the former city manager.

Her departure has not changed the balance of power on the commission, however.

Last year, a pro-development commissioner, Terri Lister, was defeated by Deby Weinstein, who is a sharp critic of large developments and what she sees as excess spending in the city.

Weinstein, Douthirt, Mayor Maggi Black, and Oakley had previously formed a consistent voting block opposed to actions taken by the previous commission.

Douthirt said Wednesday that he does not plan to change his voting pattern.

“I am pretty much staying on my course of action for transparency and accountability,” Douthirt said.

He had strongly pushed for the marina audit, which found that the city had lost upwards of $500,000 in revenue over a several-year period.

The former marina director, Dave Marsicano, bitterly resigned before the audit was made public.

“People say the audit was a witch hunt, but I don’t think so,” said Douthirt. “In fact, I think that every department should be audited.”

As for the hotel development debate that has so sharply split the town, Douthirt wants the commission to redefine the city’s planned development rules to make clear the city’s opposition to overly tall buildings.

“We need to a better job on zoning. The commission needs to have a better understanding of what building height means to the city,’’ he said. “We don’t want to turn into Clearwater Beach.”

Kochick, who had supported hotel development in the past, said he knew the election would be tight and that it “just didn’t go my way.”

He said he hopes the commission can find a ‘‘middle ground” on redevelopment, particularly since there seems to be agreement on many other issues, including infrastructure improvements.

“I was hoping that with Doug (Andrews), he and I could bring the commission to approve additional spending on programs for children and seniors and events like the Seafood Festival and fishing tournaments,” Kochick said.

Andrews, even if in the minority with Commissioner Nancy Hodges, says he plans to be a vocal supporter of these and other issues.

“They know what they are in for with me,” Andrews said. “I want lots of town halls where people can speak out on issues and get direct answers from the commission.”

He also said he, too, opposes extremely tall buildings, but feels the commission and residents should be more flexible with developers.

“We’ve got to correct the myths that drove the division in this city,” Andrews said.