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Madeira Beach candidates give voters clear choices
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Photo by NANCY AYERS
Candidates at the Feb. 9 forum in Madeira Beach were, from left, District 3 commission candidates Nancy Oakley and Ingrid Ferro-Spilde; District 4 candidates Housh Ghovaee, David Hitterman, and John Douthirt; and mayoral candidates Maggi Black and Travis Palladeno.
MADEIRA BEACH – Seven candidates with widely differing visions on the city’s future and how to get there gave their views at a candidates forum held Feb. 9 at Madeira Beach City Hall.

The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce hosted the event.

The candidates’ answers, during nearly two hours of questioning, showed residents will have a clear choice when they cast their votes on March 14.

The District 3 and 4 commission seats and the mayor will be decided this year. Due to resignations, this election has only one candidate who was elected and has served more than six months. That is Mayor Travis Palladeno, who is seeking his third term. Palladeno is being challenged by Maggi Black, a political newcomer whose husband Jim is the city’s volunteer coordinator.

In District 3, appointed Commissioner Ingrid Ferro-Spilde faces former Commissioner Nancy Oakley. The District 4 commission race has three candidates, Housh Ghovaee, who was appointed to the commission six months ago, John Douthirt, and David Hitterman.

While commission candidates represent specific districts, voters citywide vote on all the candidates.

A big issue has been two large mixed-use developments proposed for the city’s east gateway along 150th Avenue and Madeira Way. Spending has been another concern.

Residents have been divided over whether they feel the city is headed in the right direction, with big projects completed and in the works, or if they see a need to slow down and take a closer look at what is being done. Some residents are also concerned the city is losing its small town neighborly character to big developments.

Opening comments

Oakley said in her opening statement she feels the residents “want to be heard and their voice is not getting through.” She proposes citizen forums where residents can come, ask questions and get answers. She is also calling for a budget review committee and a charter review committee. “The citizens are our most important assets,” Oakley said. “We need to listen to them and hear what they have to say.”

District 3 Commissioner Ingrid Ferro-Spilde said she has seen many improvements in the city over the years. She wants to see the city continue to improve, saying she would focus on storm water drainage, road paving, undergrounding utilities, and continuing to maintain a balanced budget. Ferro-Spilde said her background as a clinical researcher is an asset. “I’m a great listener with an open mind. I can gather and analyze facts needed to make a decision,” she said.

Hitterman, a business owner, said the city needs infrastructure, and he welcomes businesses and industry and hotels to attract other businesses. He said the developments being proposed are good for the city. “It’s time to clean Madeira Beach up. It still will remain quaint. We’ve got two developers who are willing to spend the money to develop the properties, and it’s something the city needs,” he said.

Douthirt said over 1,000 people signed petitions wanting a referendum vote on the proposed developments, but “city commissioners showed the citizens do not matter when they would not accept the petitions.” He said residents want to maintain the small town atmosphere of Madeira Beach. Douthirt also said the city is overspending, and possibly has one of the largest debts in the state for a small city.

Ghovaee said he has lived in Pinellas County for 38 years and in Madeira Beach for 12 years. He cited his job as the head of an engineering firm, which has given him experience with land use amendments, drainage, traffic and other government functions. He said he also has “20 years of public service on a variety of boards,” such as Southwest Florida Water Management District, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and others that help qualify him to serve as a commissioner.

In her opening statement, Black said it was time for a change in the city. “It is time for the city to listen to the voices of the people. I do have a history of bringing people together, and people have said that I am the voice of reason,” she said. She wants new developments to have “the character of what we’re replacing, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Black also said she felt the city “is on a spending spree.”

Palladeno cited his 10 years of public service and record as mayor since 2011 as reasons he should be re-elected. “We’ve gotten Madeira Beach back on track after being stagnant for years,” he said, citing infrastructure projects, utility undergrounding, sewer and street repaving projects, and more than $6 million in grants and appropriations to help pay for them. He said he is continuing to bring funding to the beaches as vice president of the Barrier Island Governments Council.

How to build a tax base

The candidates were asked how the city could best build its tax base.

Hitterman said building the city’s infrastructure is the key. “We need businesses coming in, and we have two developers who are willing to do it,” he said. These developments will also bring in more Tourist Development Tax revenue, Hitterman said.

But Douthirt said, “Our tax base is not the problem. Our tax base will increase as our property values increase.” He said reducing spending should be the focus. “The city has a huge debt. Stop spending and the tax base will be okay,” he said.

Black said the tax base was OK until the city was put in debt by $14 million for 30 years. She said “new developments will be coming our way that will help build our tax base.”

Palladeno said redevelopment is needed. Having the city’s own building department has been a moneymaker for the city, he said. “Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. The city is doing the right things to increase revenue, and has a surplus of more than $800,000 this year,” Palladeno said. He also said, “We were number one in Pinellas County in property values rising.”

Ghovaee said industry and tourism build the tax base. “We need to develop what it takes to bring tourists to our town, and create an environment for tourists to come,” he said. “Development is a big key to reducing taxes.” He also cited John’s Pass Village and the city’s shopping areas.

Ferro-Spilde said the city needs to encourage business growth, bring in reasonable development and promote events like softball and fishing tournaments. Also, apply for more grants. She said the city needs balanced growth of commercial, retail, restaurants, hotels and residential.

Oakley said the city tax base will be OK with the infrastructure and beautification projects mainly from the private sector. Keeping the city’s small town appeal is very important, she said, adding, “We do not want our city to turn into another Clearwater Beach.”

Transparency in government

The next question was what does transparency mean to you?

Ghovaee said transparency is “not covering up. Being open to the public and being available to answer questions.”

Hitterman said information needed about government and its activities is readily available online. “Go to Madei­raBea­chFL.­gov. It’s all there, and it’s very simple to get. The budget is in there. Look at it.”

Transparency is honesty and openness, Douthirt said.

“We do not see this in our city government,” he said. “Officials say they do not have to answer questions. Why?”

Black said the people need to be kept informed.

“Everything we do should be open and explained,” she said. Ordinances are very difficult to understand. Black said transparency is “Doing everything the city is not doing right now.”

Palladeno said the city is doing a lot to be transparent. The budget is online at the library, and the city manager has an open door policy.

“I have sat with a lot of groups,” the mayor said. “All you have to do is call.”

Ferro-Spilde said transparency in government is having open conversations and listening to everyone. City officials are very easy to get ahold of, she said. But, she added, misleading information gets spread around by people and “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Oakley said residents tell her they cannot understand city ordinances. At meetings, the attorney reads the ordinance, and a vote is taken. Citizen forums would help remedy that, she believes.

Enhancing residential areas

The candidates were asked what they would do to enhance and beautify the city’s residential areas to attract new residents to the area.

Oakley said the big issue in the neighborhoods has been flooding. What was done on 140th Avenue didn’t work, she said. Oakley said the city needs to find out why it didn’t work, and look at new technologies before proceeding with the drainage project in other areas of the city.

Ferro-Spilde said the current citywide drainage and stormwater control project, which includes road paving, is important. That effort is being partially funded by a matching grant from Southwest Florida Water Management District, she noted. The pocket parks throughout the city beautify the neighborhoods and should be kept well maintained, Ferro-Spilde said.

Ghovaee said increased property values encourage people with more money to buy homes, upgrade and beautify them. Also, he said some areas do need upgrading, and may benefit from rezoning and creation of condominium complexes, as is being done with the new developments being proposed.

Underground utilities and put more money into infrastructure, said Hitterman. People will see the beautification around them and start to improve and spruce up their properties.

Douthirt’s highest priorities for beautification are the beaches, and undergrounding utilities. He also said controlling flooding should be a priority.

Black said town hall meetings will let people who feel neglected have their voices heard.

Code enforcement is No. 1, said Palladeno, to make sure people keep their properties up. He said it is important to keep the pocket parks well maintained and beautiful. Palladeno said the city “is doing things about flooding,” with drainage projects, street curbing and other improvements.

Candidates’ No. 1 priority

If elected, what would be your number one priority, candidates were asked.

Oakley – Create a citizens forum, “because the city does not listen to the people.”

Ferro-Spilde – “Have open communication with the citizens,” to make sure everything is clear and people are not misled.

Ghovaee – Unite Madeira Beach. Have quarterly or monthly meetings with citizens. “We need to be on the same team. Respect each other’s differences, but after the vote is taken, come together.”

Hitterman – Attract new businesses. “Everything we need is here, the opportunity is great. I want to see Madeira Beach become the jewel of the beaches.”

Douthirt – “The city needs more fiscal responsibility. Spending needs to be scrutinized and decreased.”

Black – “Hold town hall meetings where things are explained and we can understand it.”

Palladeno – “Keep doing what we’ve been doing.” Getting appropriations, grants, and revenue producing activities “so we don’t have to raise taxes.” Compromise on divisive issues, such as the proposed new developments.
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