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Belleair Bluffs candidates discuss issues
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From left, Belleair Bluffs Commissioners Joe Barkley and Taylour Shimkus are being challenged by George Lawton.
BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Two commission seats are up for election in the city this year. George Lawton is challenging three-term Commissioner Joe Barkley and Commissioner Taylour Shimkus, who is seeking a third term. Lawton ran unsuccessfully for a Bluffs commission seat a year ago.

Barkley and Shimkus believe the city is well run and financially sound, while Lawton sees flaws in city government and says changes are much needed.

The election is Tuesday, March 11, with mail-in balloting already in effect. The top two vote-getters will be the winners.

Barkley highlights his civic involvement

Barkley is running for a fourth term on the commission this year. In seeking re-election, Barkley said he believes the city is well maintained, fiscally sound, and efficiently run. It is a place people are happy to live in and want to move to.

“This is a good place to live,” he said, “and I want to continue to be a part of the team that has kept the city running smoothly and efficiently.”

While on the commission, Barkley said he has consistently voted for keeping taxes down as much as possible, while still maintaining high city services. Taxes were not raised this past year, he said, while upward trends in property values may produce “small, but promising” increases in revenue.

Barkley is an active participant in governmental organizations such as the Florida League of Cities and Suncoast League of Cities, and serves on the board of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. He said his involvement with those groups promotes the interests of Belleair Bluffs residents and “keeps the city on the map.”

Barkley said he supports initiatives the League of Cities is undertaking, such as fighting state government moves that reduce revenue to the cities, and supporting actions that give the cities more control over their own affairs. Recently, the League has been pushing for federal action to give people relief from the spike in flood insurance rates due to the Biggert-Waters Act.

An example of home rule that Barkley advocated was in the setting of limits on short term rentals. Belleair Bluffs passed an ordinance in 2011 that allows no more than four tenancies at any property during a 12-month period. By having that law in place, the city did not have to adopt more lenient rental laws subsequently passed by the state.

He said PSTA’s push for a better transportation system will benefit Bluffs’ residents.

Barkley said his service on these boards “allows people to know where Belleair Bluffs is and helps our small city keep a high profile.”

Barkley said the current commission members have helped make Belleair Bluffs a good place to live and he urges the voters to “keep them in place.”

Lawton wants a more open government

Lawton believes city government needs to be more open and responsive to the citizens. He said he will work to make that happen if he is elected to the commission.

Lawton said the city’s lack of planning, communication and transparency with citizens has created problems in a number of instances. He cited as examples the Dolphin Pond drainage project, Mehlenbacher Road work, the building of a new fire station, and the $1.6 million pension settlement with its former firefighters.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent, as I talk to the residents, that their voice is not being heard,” Lawton said. He said people don’t come to commission meetings because it wouldn’t make any difference. Information is being withheld, complicated explanations are given, and the citizens are being talked down to, he said.

“That’s the pattern I see happening,” Lawton said. People are asking, “‘Why does everything have to be so confrontational?’ That rubs people the wrong way.”

Lawton also believes the city needs to do more planning before acting on issues, and communicate those plans to the citizens. Hiding things just makes things more difficult, he says.

If elected to the commission, Lawton says he will represent the citizens, and make sure their voice is heard. “That’s the real reason I am running, to give the citizens a fair shake,” he said.

Lawton says the current commissioners “vote in lock step.” On the commission, he said he will go to the meetings prepared, state his opinions, and represent the citizens of Belleair Bluffs.

Lawton believes taxes should be kept as low as possible without sacrificing safety and planned improvements. Spending reductions are possible, he said, by looking for lower costs or more efficient alternatives. Long-term planning would reduce costs, and capital expenditures should be budgeted for and communicated to the citizens. Requests for information from city staff should be answered within 24 hours.

“I am the only commission candidate with a financial background,” Lawton said.

Above all, Lawton said he will recognize “the citizens are the boss.”

Shimkus says ‘put the residents first’

Shimkus first ran for a commission seat in 2010, she pledged to “always put the residents first.” Now seeking a third term, Shimkus said that remains her goal.

Shimkus said she has kept her promise to have an open door policy for residents and business owners.

During her time on the commission, Shimkus has served as finance commissioner and public safety commissioner. She led a drive to lower the budget by $300,000 while maintaining the city’s high quality of life, she said. She was the only commissioner to vote against raises for city staff members and has opposed a utility tax for residents when it has come up.

Shimkus said when she joined the commission, safety was not a priority. As police and public safety commissioner, she started nighttime patrols and worked to assure consistency and longevity in the officers assigned to the city. “We were getting new deputies every other day,” she said. Shimkus said she is proud to have been endorsed for re-election by Sheriff Bob Gaultieri.

Today, Shimkus said the city is in good standing with no huge issues. In the near term, Shimkus said she would focus on the future of Belleair Bluffs. “We’ve just celebrated 50 years as a city,” she said. “We need to plan for what the city will look like 50 years from now.”

A lot of young families are moving in, and Shimkus said she would like to see the city’s playground updated, with new equipment and perhaps a “sprayground” water park, which she said a lot of communities are doing. People would be willing to pay for that, she said, so it could be a source of revenue.

Shimkus also would like to see Belleair Bluffs partner with another community such as Belleair or Largo, so residents could use some of their recreation services at a reduced cost. She also mentioned restarting the Easter Egg Hunt and staging a “Belleair Bluffs Night” at a Clearwater Thrashers baseball game.

Shimkus stressed her desire to do what the residents want. “I’m your commissioner,” she said. “I will do what is best for us.”

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