CLEARWATER — Five candidates for city council revealed more similarities than differences Tuesday evening during a forum sponsored by the Sand Key Civic Association.
The candidates are running for two seats in the March 11 election.
The race for Seat 4, currently held by Bill Jonson, has turned into a three-way contest. Jonson, who retired from Honeywell International and worked as a certified public accountant, is seeking re-election. His challengers are David Allbritton, CEO of David Allbritton Building Contractor, Inc., who has served on a number of city boards during the past 14 years; and Konrad McCree, Jr., a business analyst for Wellcare Health Plans, Inc., and senior pastor at the nondenominational Simply Kingdom Ministries.
The contest for Seat 5, currently held by term-limited Vice Mayor Paul Gibson, will be a two-person race. Hoyt Hamilton, co-owner of the Palm Pavilion restaurant and Palm Pavilion Inn, and military veteran Jon Paul Rosa are vying for the seat.
It was hard to find much disagreement among the candidates as they were in unison on most issues raised.
They agreed that steps taken by municipal leaders to get through the recession, including investments and cutbacks, put Clearwater on better financial footing than most cities.
They agreed with the city's direction to develop Clearwater Beach through its master plan, Beach by Design, and embraced more private-sector development.
They agreed that the city's efforts to resurrect the Cleveland Street District by spending $10.5 million in tax money to renovate the Capitol Theatre should encourage the private sector to do more to help revitalize downtown.
They agreed that there's more to the city than the beach and downtown; and therefore, the focus should be on neighborhoods in throughout the Clearwater area.
Meanwhile, their differences were slight.
For example, despite a 3 percent rise in property taxes, the city incurred a $1.4 million deficit in the last fiscal year, which was resolved by dipping into general fund reserves. In the current fiscal year, a $1.7 million deficit is anticipated.
The candidates' view:
• Allbritton wants to focus on increasing the tax base by expanding and luring new business. “It puts money in the coffers.”
• Jonson desires more process improvements within the city operation and re-evaluating non-essential needs. “It's during times like these that Clearwater needs experienced leadership.”
• McCree would spend tax proceeds wisely to prevent dipping into the general reserve fund.
• Rosa would use that fund to restore playground equipment at some of the 14 neighborhood parks that the city demolished or has slated for demolition through 2019 because of age and lack of funding.
• Hamilton reinforced advice from his father — “Watch the pennies, and the dollars will follow.”
While all the candidates also espoused their love for Clearwater, they voiced differing opinions on what the city hasn't done well.
Jonson said he regrets that not enough research was done to find a more cost-effective solution for a landscaping project. It cost the city $140,000; however, neighboring Largo spent only $20,000 on a similar project.
Allbritton said, “We have a culture of no,” referring to the permitting process. “We need to make the Municipal Services Building more customer-friendly. I know how to navigate through the process. If someone tells me no, I know who to escalate the issue to. The average homeowner doesn't.”
McCree would like the city to do more for other neighborhoods like North Greenwood. He and Rosa both sit on the North Greenwood Neighborhood Coalition. After decades of spiraling urban decay and neglect and an increasing crime rate, the coalition and the city have made improvements like a $300,000 sports field in 2012 built with a $100,000 grant from the National Football League Grassroots Program. The candidates also would consider expanding the operating hours at the neighborhood library.
Hamilton said the city's “one size fits all” mindset needs to change. “It doesn't work for all neighborhoods.” He and Allbritton favor establishing more character districts, similar to the city's Beach by Design for the beach community.
Some examples of character districts would be a conventional residential district with subdivisions and other housing areas like cul-de-sacs; a highway business district that corresponds with auto-oriented businesses and employment along corridors like U.S. 19; or a conservation district that protects and preserves open-space and undeveloped areas.
Jonson disagreed, saying that defining more character districts is costly, could result in legal issues and may require more staff. Allbritton countered that city officials have told him the opposite.
Rosa would pursue efficiencies through renewable energy sources created by water, the sun or wind — technologies designed to improve energy efficiency.
“To encourage young professionals and entrepreneurs, they want sustainability and efficiencies” in their leadership, said Rosa.
If residents missed Tuesday's forum, the next candidate debate will be held at 7 p.m. next Thursday in the third-floor council chambers at city hall, 112 S. Osceola Ave.