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Three candidates seek St. Pete Beach mayor’s job
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ST. PETE BEACH – When Maria Lowe announced her resignation as mayor of St. Pete Beach last spring, a process to find her replacement was promptly put into place.

Community activist Deborah Schechner was named the interim mayor and has filled Lowe’s remaining nine months.

Now Schechner and two others – John-Michael Fleig and Al Johnson – have filed for the position that carries a three-year term and an $8,100 salary. Voters will make their choice on March 14.

The Beach Beacon takes a look at the three candidates to help residents of St. Pete Beach make their decision.

John-Michael Fleig

Career/business: Commercial property management.
Age: 50
Education: High school graduate, attended college
Number of years in St. Pete Beach: 12
Previous government experience: Community activist

Al Johnson

Career/business: engineering/sales/marketing
Age: 68
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering
Number of years in St. Pete Beach: 18
Previous government experience: St. Pete Beach Finance and Budget Committee, 5 years, current chairman; St. Pete Beach Recreation Advisory Committee, 2 years.

Deborah Schechner

Career/business: Vice president of Awning Works Inc., previous real estate management.
Age: 63
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in education
Number of years in St. Pete Beach: 16
Previous government experience: Current interim mayor of St. Pete Beach, appointed to the Pinellas County task force on sewers and storm water, served on the St. Pete Beach Finance and Budget Committee, served two terms on the Citizens Advisory Board for the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, currently represents the city on the Pinellas County Mayors Council and the Barrier Islands Governmental Council.

Why should the residents of St. Pete Beach elect you?

FLEIG: I live, work and socialize here in town. I am running for mayor to preserve what’s left of our neighborly atmosphere and rebuild what’s been destroyed. This town is “paradise” and I want to respect the blessing. This town isn’t even following its own election rules any more. The cronyism, back scratching and buddy system players can no longer be allowed to run this town like their own play toy board game. Some want to be mayor to brag, pump up already-inflated résumés, feel validated, recognized or legitimized. Some do anything and say anything to win votes. I am trying to earn enough votes to be hired for the job of mayor.

JOHNSON: My educational and work experience is ideally suited to address the near and long-term challenges facing the city. Combined with my in-depth knowledge of the budget and finances, that background makes me the best qualified to hold the position. I have demonstrated the leadership and team building skills that are necessary to unite our citizens to move the city forward without changing our beach community charm and character.

SCHECHNER: I was honored to be chosen by the commission to become the (interim) mayor of St. Pete Beach. I declared it was not my intention to run for mayor but I knew continuity and relationships were needed now, and decided to run. My experience and leadership through the sewer challenges and development agreement are invaluable to move our city forward in the right direction. I love being the mayor of our city and it is a job I take very seriously. My first priority is to ensure we can flush our toilets. Our sewer pipes have been cleaned and photographed, a priority repair/replace list has been undertaken and we are making progress. My commitment to transparency is significant to my being the mayor. Everyone is welcome to the table, I listen. Cooperation and conversations allowed for a very proud moment when I successfully helped to accomplish an agreement between residents and a hotel, avoiding a costly lawsuit. St. Pete Beach has been a donor city. I have developed relationships with state and county officials with the goal to get our fair share of sales and bed tax. My work effort embraces collaboration, inclusion and conversations with residents and businesses. Voters should elect me as mayor because we need an experienced mayor dedicated to St. Pete Beach.

What are the biggest issues the city of St. Pete Beach faces in the next two years?

FLEIG: Of all the counties in Florida, Pinellas County has the most codes on the books. Of all the towns and cities in Pinellas County, St. Pete Beach has the most codes on the books. This is bad for homeowners and businesses alike. Contractors refuse to work here and when one does find a contractor, the price of the project is often triple and usually not with the most professional of contractors. That doesn’t help businesses looking to open in our town as they wouldn’t know this insider information. I want to go over every single code on our books, streamline and modernize them. Infrastructure has finally been seriously addressed and the next mayor needs to be strong-willed enough to keep the commission focused. This is a vacation town and we chose to live here. So complaining about nearly everything that goes on in this town is disingenuous. The commission is seen by a huge majority of the citizens as a bunch of crabby, stuck in the mud do-nothings.

JOHNSON: Repairing and improving the sewer system, updating the storm water system and improving the condition of our roads. We must do this carefully to keep property taxes low. Additionally, we must control redevelopment of our aging hotel inventory to protect the character of our city. Public safety is very important to me. As a barrier island and coastal city, we always have to be prepared for potential hurricanes and storm surges that could increase the risk of flooding and damage to residential and commercial property. Our first responders should have the funding and equipment needed to promote the high level of service we come to expect and to keep us safe.

SCHECHNER: Revenue sources for necessary repairs, maintenance and upgrades to our infrastructure. My knowledge and legislative relationships are key to navigating through appropriations, grants and other revenue sources. Repairing infrastructure also helps our economy, environment and quality of life. The health and safety of our residents is of prime importance, working with our sheriff to increase patrols in our neighborhoods and supporting our excellent fire and EMS personnel. Keeping our environment clean, sustaining our beaches, recycling and supporting an advantageous environment for our turtle nests, black skimmers and other wildlife. As your mayor, I will also be developing a plan of action to fix our storm water flooding challenges, replace buoys in our waterways, better enforcement of no-wake zones, and receiving our fair share of sales tax and tourist bed taxes.

What is your stance on these issues and how would you approach them?

FLEIG: I think we should have a townwide discussion about making the commission full time and eliminating all the volunteer boards; making the commission more accountable to the public and streamlining the daily activities at city hall.

JOHNSON: Funding of the necessary repairs and upgrades of our roads and sewers will be the biggest challenge. The projects that are needed are far too costly to be funded via increased taxes and the city’s long-term debt is high enough (in my opinion). Innovative funding will be necessary – grant money, public/private partnerships, etc.

SCHECHNER: Effective government. I understand the difference between needs and wants and in my administration, needs come first. I will make funding repairs of our infrastructure my priority. This will include setting aside tax dollars to be only used for repairs and maintenance of infrastructure. Running a business requires fiscal responsibility, problem solving skills, time management and the appreciation of personnel. I bring experience and leadership to solve our challenges.

What capital projects would you support within the city over the next 10 years?

FLEIG: Infrastructure is a local town’s most important responsibility. Anything more than that is gravy. Adequate parking has been an issue for decades. We now ticket and tow our neighbors’ cars. Customers and beachgoers from Pasadena, Gulfport, Old Northeast and South Pinellas bring in the most of our outside business throughout the year. We are getting a reputation for being un-neighborly.

JOHNSON: Essential repairs to roads and sewers must come first. Once that is accomplished, we need to address the library and also examine public parking options.

SCHECHNER: Repair and maintenance of sewers and storm water mitigation. Residents and businesses deserve a working sewer system and streets free from frequent flooding. Our future moving forward will include a “sunrise to sunset” plan for Corey Avenue. As mayor, I will support projects to repave and mainstream our neighborhood roads. I would also support landscape design and beautification throughout our city.

How would you propose they be funded?

FLEIG: Pinellas County doesn’t even have a million residents, yet its budget is over $2 billion. St. Pete Beach barely has 10,000 residents and the town’s budget is some $15 million. I find this un-American. I met a woman in her 70s who’s heart was broken because she was forced to sell her house that she inherited (without a mortgage) from her parents due to taxes and insurance cost. These towns and county commissions are wild spending and corrupted. I would work with and fight Pinellas County over the bedroom tax. I think the county should be held to only 1.5 percent bedroom tax, dedicated only to county infrastructure and St. Pete Beach could instill a 1.5 percent bedroom tax dedicated to its infrastructure and maintenance. This will save the hotel/motels money and earn money for our town, which is actually made here anyway.

JOHNSON: As the economy continues to improve, city revenues will increase. In addition, I will seek the state and federal grants that are available now and in the future.

SCHECHNER: Fair sales tax distribution for St. Pete Beach. A portion of the bed tax paid by our tourists should be shared with our city to help with costs for the sheriff, emergency services, beach cleanup and infrastructure, which would help to keep our taxes low. We have enterprise funds set aside for sewer repairs. There’s also the Penny for Pinellas funds. I have worked on an appropriation bill that State Rep. Kathleen Peters has presented to a House committee to help with our sewer repairs.

Additional comments

FLEIG: The last thing we need as mayor is St. Pete Beach’s version of Hillary Clinton – someone who will do/say anything to get a seat on the commission. Someone who has heavily divided her own district and doesn’t need to be mayor, potentially ruining business and property values with divisive behavior.

JOHNSON: I have been involved in civic projects in St. Pete Beach since 2003, giving me an in-depth perspective on how we have arrived at this point in our evolution. I’m convinced that good long-term planning regarding maintenance and upgrades of our infrastructure will get us to a point where our spending will stabilize in these areas. We have arrived at this maintenance deficit by not engaging in and funding the necessary maintenance for more than a decade.

SCHECHNER: Eco and sport tourism would be a good fit in St. Pete Beach. Our beautiful beaches and bay offer many water sports opportunities, such as paddle boarding and kayaking. Environmentally friendly tourism is the wave of the future.
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