Patti Johnson and Keith Sabiel, candidates for Seat 2 on the Pinellas Park City Council, faced off in a Feb. 23 forum at the Mainlands. Candidate Eugene Hendry did not attend the event.
PINELLAS PARK – Two of the three candidates running for Pinellas Park City Council Seat 2 showed up at a candidates’ forum at the Mainlands of Tamarac on Feb. 23.
They met with interested residents and answered specific questions put forth by the organizers and individuals from the audience.
Incumbent Patti Johnson and candidate Keith Sabiel came out for the forum; candidate Eugene Hendry did not attend.
In their opening remarks, the candidates were given time to introduce themselves. Sabiel, who went first, told the audience that he and his family have lived in the city since the 1970s. He is retiring from his position of director of the city’s Public Utilities Department this year.
“I have 39 years of experience with the city,” he said. “I have been involved with the building of roads and construction in Pinellas Park. When it happened, I was there.”
Johnson, whose family and granddaughter also live in the city, said she wants to continue to serve on the council. She said she had served on several of the city’s volunteer boards before becoming an elected official, as well as serving on the boards of several nonprofit organizations.
“I operate two businesses in the city,” she said. “I’m also a court guardian and I owe it all to my family who support me along the way.”
Then it was down to business. The candidates had to respond to four questions, one at a time. Question one asked whether the candidates supported candidates running at large, rather than running in specific geographic areas.
Johnson said she was in favor of the system the way it is, with all five councilors running at large.
“If you only have one councilor concerned with your issues, then you will have a problem if that person doesn’t agree with you,” she said. “It is much better to have all five councilors acting on your behalf.”
“The system as it exists is in the city’s charter,” he said. “Even though it was written in 1959, I agree with it. If you only had one person representing you then you would have nowhere else to turn.”
The second question asked what they feel is the biggest challenge facing Pinellas Park.
Sabiel said his biggest concerns are life and safety issues, and that he was not happy with county cutbacks that have had a direct impact on the city’s ability to provide quick response times.
“I don’t agree with the county’s proposal to cut $175,000 from the budget, which would cut service for two of our emergency vehicles,” he said. “Our fire department operates at the lowest cost of any in the county and I think it is time to renegotiate with the county to get those units back.”
Johnson said for her the biggest challenge the city faces is making sure the budget can pay for the city’s services.
“We’ve done a good job in keeping our financial house in order,” she said. “But last year we lost 19 positions because of that lost fire [rescue services] contract in High Point. We managed, through attrition, not to lose any jobs.”
She said it is important to keep building good relationships at the county, state and federal levels.
“We get a lot of our money from all three of those levels of government, so it is important to build and maintain those relationships” she said.
The next questions for the candidates related to issues in the Mainlands Community, home to more than 4,000 residents. The first related to dilapidated properties that resulted from foreclosures.
Johnson said the problem was far broader than just in the Mainlands.
“It is a statewide and nationwide problem,” she said. “Since 2007, foreclosures have increased, and in 2009, we engaged a company to keep those properties in good repair. They make sure the grass is cut, things are repaired and pools are not going green. I feel it is working, although some more tweaking of the system could be done.”
Sabiel agreed the problem is widespread and he agreed the company trying to keep things looking good is doing a good job under the circumstances.
“Their job is to make sure a vacant house doesn’t look vacant, and I don’t know how they do that,” he said. “We have to get together with other communities to see how they are tackling the problem of foreclosures and we have to urge the state to give us more leeway so we can take matters into our own hands and fix these problems ourselves.”
The final question to the candidates was how they would characterize the city’s treatment of the Mainlands over the past five to 10 years.
Sabiel said he felt the city has treated the Mainlands quite well. He said during his time working for the city, excellent customer service was always his motto.
“I worked hard at developing relationships with the people here,” he said. “We were able to take over the testing and maintenance of the fire hydrants here. We brought reclaimed water here, and we tested and cleaned the sanitary sewer system. It was all done with the cooperation of the residents and it was a win-win situation.
Johnson also said she felt the city has treated the Mainlands well.
“Over the past five years, I have spent a lot of time here,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea of any negative inertia here and I would beg you to approach any of the councilors if you have a problem and tell them what you need. We deal with many issues, not just one, but we do deal with every issue and we get things done.”
Following the formal questions, which the candidates got in advance, residents asked questions.
Relevant to the Mainlands was why there wasn’t a countdown crosswalk signal at U.S. 19 and Mainlands Boulevard and why the entrance to Gateway Center Boulevard was neglected.
In the case of the crosswalk signal, both candidates said it was a complicated multi-jurisdictional issue that is in the works. As for the Gateway entrance, both said they would pass the issue along to city staff and things should get done there quickly.
The missing candidate, Hendry, has been a resident of Pinellas Park for three years. He moved to the area from Pennsylvania, where he was a firefighter and EMS worker. He also was involved in local politics there for a number of years.
Organizers of the event expected him to attend and don’t know why he didn’t show up.
Election Day is Tuesday, March 11. The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.