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Council candidates explain platforms
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Incumbent Bill Jonson, left, is defending his Seat 4 against challenges from David Allbritton and Konrad McCree (no photo available).
Hoyt Hamilton, left, and Jon-Paul Rosa are competing for Seat 5 that Paul Gibson is vacating because of term limits.
CLEARWATER – Voters who missed the Jan. 15 candidates’ forum at the Salvation Army’s Joy Center got another chance to meet and evaluate the City Council candidates, when Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel moderated a candidates’ forum at City Hall the evening of Feb 13.

Incumbent Bill Jonson is defending his Seat 4 against challenges from David Allbritton and Konrad McCree. Hoyt Hamilton and Jon-Paul Rosa are competing for Seat 5 that Paul Gibson is vacating because of term limits.

The election will be held on March 11.

“I know how to be proactive and balance the budget,” said Allbritton, 63, who owns a construction company and serves on the boards of several local organizations.

“The city council stands on the shoulders of those who came before it but must also look to the future and the problems it brings,” said Jonson, a 69-year-old Army veteran and retired Honeywell project manager who has served on the council since 2001, except for a three-year hiatus required by term limits.

“There are a lot of things I appreciate about growing up here (in Clearwater,) and I want my children to have the same opportunities I had,” said McCree, a 29-year-old pastor and businessman.

“Public safety is and always will be (my) number one” priority, said Hamilton, 55, whose family owns the Palm Pavilion and Palm Pavilion Inn on Clearwater Beach. He served on the City Council from 2001 to 2006.

Rosa, 30, a recent Army veteran who served three tours as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan, said that if elected, he will “promote an atmosphere where businesses can prosper, opportunities are created and all families are treated with dignity and respect.”

When Ruechel asked the candidates what they would change in Clearwater, Jonson replied that it’s a great city but it needs more “quality jobs and innovative industries.” McCree said that “there are some things we can’t change,” such as the weather, but he would try to do more for Clearwater’s children and libraries. Hamilton said that he would “create more opportunity for citizens to use city resources” such as parks and libraries. Rosa stated that he would “embrace more sustainable sources of income” instead of relying so heavily on tourism. Allbritton said that he is “concerned about the ‘culture of no’ here,” and would make Clearwater more “business friendly” by streamlining the permitting processes.

When the candidates were asked if they would support a tax increase to balance the budget, McCree said that “it’s important for us to begin by thinking proactively” and engaging the citizens to see what they want. Hamilton said that raising the millage rate should be “an absolute last resort,” but there is no way of knowing if an increase is necessary “until you have the hard numbers.” Rosa said that he would have to study the matter further to know if a millage rate hike is necessary, but he advocated the hiring of local contractors so the money would stay in Clearwater. Allbritton turned thumbs-down on a millage rate hike and said that any shortfall could be made up through economic development. Jonson said that a millage rate hike could be avoided by “work(ing) smarter, not harder,” but reserves shouldn’t be spent for ongoing functions.

All of the candidates said they now favor moving the Clearwater Marine Aquarium downtown. Rosa said that he voted against it in the citywide referendum, but has since changed his mind. Jonson said that the move should be part of a downtown revitalization that also includes new businesses and events.

When asked how he would balance the needs of Clearwater’s diverse communities, Rosa said that he would “listen to the communities and be their voice.” Allbritton said that he would scrap the “one size fits all” concept and create “character districts” that recognize the diversity of Clearwater’s neighborhoods. Jonson said that the city has already recognized the diversity of its neighborhoods by such things as its redevelopment plans for Clearwater Beach and the U.S. 19 corridor, but there must be uniform code enforcement throughout the city. McCree said that it is important for councilmembers to be a “continuous presence” in the neighborhoods to listen to the people and try to give them what they want. Hamilton said that “one-size-fits-all doesn’t work,” and the council must address the diversity of the neighborhoods.

Ruechel then asked about “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” the city’s sometimes contentious relationship with the Church of Scientology. Allbritton replied that “when people don’t understand something, they’re against it,” so the city should try to improve its relationship with the church, which is a major taxpayer even though some of its property is tax-exempt. Jonson said that “one of the ways to deal with the situation is to communicate.” McCree said that the church is “facing some of the same issues we are,” so the city and the church should work together. Hamilton said that while being mindful of the separation of church and state, the city and the church should work together to solve their common problems. Rosa said that the church has been in Clearwater longer than he has been alive, and the church and the city should “open lines of communication and work together.”

All five candidates said that they support raising Pinellas County’s current 7 percent sales tax to 8 percent, the highest in Florida, to fund the “Green Light Pinellas” mass transit project. “We have trouble with our traffic now,” McCree explained; “One thing we don’t need is gridlock.”

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