BELLEAIR BLUFFS – George Lawton is challenging incumbent Commissioners Jack Nazario and Suzy Sofer, hoping to win a seat on the commission in the Belleair Bluffs March 12 municipal election.
Residents can each vote for two candidates. The two candidates who receive the most votes win. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.
For more information on polling places, mail ballots and more, visit votepinellas.com.
In a recent interview, Lawton said that he decided to run because he believes the commissioners take action without asking questions or thoroughly discussing issues.
“On issue after issue, from the Dolphin Road controversy to the fire pension payout, the commissioners are not speaking up, and decisions are made by default,” Lawton said. “The current commissioners have been silent on the most important issues, leaving the major decision-making process to the discretion of the mayor.”
As an example, Lawton said the fire pension issue was approved “without sound legal advice and with a high probability of loss.” As a result, a matter that “could have been settled for about $660,000 two years ago will now cost the taxpayers at least $1.2 million and likely result in a tax increase.”
On the Dolphin Pond case, Lawton said the city wants to take the property rights of citizens by demanding easements without asking the question “Do we have a legal obligation to clean the pond?”
“No one knows, and we have been spending money cleaning up the area where we could have said to the citizens, ‘You take care of it.’”
The Dolphin Pond controversy concerns an ongoing dispute between the city and neighbors surrounding the pond. The city is demanding permanent property easements in exchange for periodic cleaning and maintenance of the pond. Dolphin Pond is a city drainage pond.
Lawton also accuses city staff members of “a lack of openness in dealing with citizens.” He said it is difficult to get information and answers to questions resulting in “angry, distrustful citizens.”
If elected, Lawton said he will do his homework on issues and make sure there is analysis and open discussion, with a look at alternatives, before making a decision. He also will “insist on a policy that any citizen request should be responded to within 24 hours.”
Lawton’s background includes 30 years as chief financial officer and controller for a local aerospace manufacturer and involvement in professional organizations.
“Proper planning and procedures and the use of good common sense have been a major part of my professional life,” he said.
Lawton said he has no agenda, except “to make the commission more responsive to the people.”
Since joining the commission four years ago, Nazario has been an advocate for safety measures to protect citizens and motorists navigating the city’s busy thoroughfares.
He has pushed for pedestrian crosswalks, especially on West Bay Boulevard from Indian Rocks Road to the bridge where none exist. The county turned down an early push for a traffic light at the busy condo entrance on West Bay Drive.
Nazario did get a turn lane, which he said has helped. The crosswalks look promising at this point, and Nazario has vowed not to give up that issue until “there are places to cross safely.”
“As a condo resident, I see the dangers, and I won’t quit until our citizens can freely and safely walk our city,” he said.
Nazario’s commitment to a pedestrian friendly city is part of a larger goal of making Belleair Bluffs “a destination” locally, with shops, restaurants and other businesses that have regional appeal along with environmentally sound policies that will assure clean and attractive surroundings.
Prospering businesses that serve the citizens also contribute to the city’s tax base, and Nazario believes Belleair Bluffs must be financially sound and build up its reserve funds.
User fees such as utility fees, rather than just millage rate increases, should be considered to replenish reserves, he says. The fees can be adjusted up or down to meet financial needs, while property tax rate changes are more difficult to enact.
Nazario said he works for the city’s interests by serving on numerous governmental boards and committees. He is a member of the Florida League and Suncoast League of Cities, and serves on the Florida League’s Energy and Environmental Committee. He is also a trustee of the Municipal Investment Trust.
If re-elected, Nazario said he will continue to pursue policies and issues that enhance the image of Belleair Bluffs and improve the daily lives of its citizens.
As both a resident and business owner in Belleair Bluffs, Suzy Sofer said she can provide a voice for both communities.
She believes strong and prosperous businesses benefit the citizens by serving their needs and providing a tax base that brings income to the city.
Taxation issues have been a concern of Sofer’s. The majority of Bluffs residents live on fixed incomes and have been struggling in the current economic climate, she said.
“I have no intent to raise the millage rate or vote for any kind of tax increase for residents or business owners until the economy stabilizes,” Sofer said. That includes utility fees, which the commission has considered introducing.
She believes her experience as a business owner has benefited her in evaluating the city’s finances. She is also treasurer of the Bluffs Business Association.
“I know how important it is to stick to a budget. I know not to overspend and try hard to reduce expenses and buy supplies at cost,” she said.
Sofer headed a committee of city officials who worked with the county to have the portable toilets on the bridge property replaced with attractive bathroom facilities. She also came up with a log sheet system to solve complaints by residents who were being improperly cited for having boats and trailers improperly parked on their property.
Sofer is a strong advocate of seeking grant money to pay for city projects. She cites the ongoing street resurfacing and refurbishing, and drainage control project, which costs millions and is largely financed by state grant money.
It is Sofer’s opinion that commissioners should use their city salaries to pay travel expenses. Only if that money is overspent should they dip into the city’s travel budget.
Sofer said she wants to see the city continuing to move in a positive direction, operate efficiently, and not add costs to taxpayers.
She has an open-door policy and wants to work with both residents and business owners to resolve any issues and move the city forward.