MADEIRA BEACH — Two candidates for mayor faced off in a Feb. 2 forum that contrasted an incumbent commissioner touting a city “doing the right things” with a newcomer to city politics who mostly agreed but saw room for improvement. The election is March 14.

The debate was sponsored by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, with CEO Robin Miller serving as moderator.

In the contest, Doug Andrews, a two-term commissioner who is currently the city’s vice mayor, is running against Jim Rostek, a retired paramedic/fire captain making his first run for political office. The winner will replace Mayor John Hendricks, who is leaving office after serving one three-year term.

Andrews said he is running for mayor because he wants to continue the current policies of Hendricks. Throughout the debate, Andrews emphasized that the city is doing great.

“We’re going in the right direction and doing the right things,” he said.

Andrews cited the leadership of Hendricks and City Manager Robin Gomez, whom he called “a rock star.”

Andrews said Hendricks has “brought back dignity and respect to the mayoral position” and said employee morale is at an all-time high with Gomez in charge, “after the debacles of the past.”

He also said Hendricks has helped the city compete at the state level for the funding of city projects.

“I first ran for commissioner (four years ago) to correct the problems of the past. We were in the Dark Ages for a long time,” said Andrews, who had been on city staff as the Parks and Recreation director until being fired by the interim city manager in 2017.

Rostek, who moved to Madeira Beach in 2015, had recently told the Beacon he was running for mayor to “effect change.” In his opening statement, he gave a detailed list of items he wants to address, such as budget items that are “wasting taxpayers’ dollars,” and a lack of communication and transparency within some city departments to the citizens. He mentioned several times that citizens’ comments are being ignored, and the three-minute limit on comments is “unfair to the citizens” and should be changed.

Another change he wants to see is simplifying the permitting process so that a person can walk out with a building permit the same day they apply.

In response to a question later in the forum asking what he thought was going right in the city, Rostek said trash collection is good, the beach and waterways are clean “100% of the time,” and the city manager does a wonderful job.

Rostek said he did not have a lot to complain about in the city. 

“Other than a few of the minor things I’ve spoken about, everything else runs fine in the city,” Rostek said.

Andrews was asked if he thought anything was wrong in the city after making so many positive comments. He agreed the permit process takes too long, but said the laws are complicated and permit applications often need several reviews before being approved. Another negative he mentioned was a project using pervious pavement that didn’t work out and should have been handled differently. But he returned to his theme that “the city is running way better than it probably ever has in my time here.”

Development issues

The main issue that drew a contrast between the two candidates was their differing attitudes about development.

Andrews said he supports redevelopment in the city, but has never even seen proposals for huge, tall buildings because “nobody wants another Clearwater Beach.” He said only one development has been approved in the four years he has been on the commission.

Proposed development plans go through a long, rigorous analysis by professionals in the Planning and Zoning department, Andrews said, and then they go to the Planning Board before coming to the commission. That process tends to limit development, he said.

Rostek said Planned Development projects — which allow more height and density in exchange for a developer adding amenities that benefit the city — can bring problems.

“Unfortunately, what happens with most of the PD zoning, the residents find out about it and all they have is three minutes to talk at a commission meeting and then they’re shut down,” said Rostek. “There has to be more resident input, which is going to give you buy-in.”

Another potential problem cited by Rostek is the proposed John’s Pass Village Activity Center zoning, which puts John’s Pass Village and the residential areas around it under one zoning. 

“This impacts everyone in the city,” Rostek said. “My personal stance on it is, if some of the commissioners are still having conflict with it because it is such a massive undertaking, then it needs to be broken down into smaller increments.”

“The biggest gripe I have with it,” he added, “is the fact we’re talking about the John’s Pass Activity Center — why did it come outside of John’s Pass Village?”

He said it should be for John’s Pass Village only and not encompass residential areas.

Andrews, a strong proponent of the new zoning, said “absolutely no buildings are approved under the John’s Pass Activity Center zoning.” It is a designation to preserve and protect the uniqueness and character of John’s Pass Village, he said.

The proposed zoning involves a single zone, but it is broken down into eight character districts with different density standards. The Activity Center concept is not unique to Madeira Beach, Andrews said.

“There are 26 Activity Centers in Pinellas County.”

An ordinance to establish the Activity Center zoning in John’s Pass was approved on first reading in a 3-to-2 vote in January. Currently it is up for review at Pinellas County, before coming back to the Madeira Beach commission for a second and final vote.

Closing statements

In their closing statements, Andrews said “if you’d pick up the Beach Beacon, we used to be the dysfunctional children, but now we’re the jewel of the beach again.” He added that he likes the direction the city is going.

Asked by a friend what he wanted his legacy to be, Andrews said it would be “unity.” He acknowledged that was a typical political statement, but he said in a small town of 4,000 people unity should be achievable.

“Do we have common ground?” Andrews asked. “I’d say so. Nobody wants skyscrapers here, nobody’s going to bulldoze John’s Pass. We all want our streets safe; we all want to get rid of any kind of drug problems. We want to keep our millage rate low. Eventually, we want to underground utilities. Unity is achievable, and we’re a lot closer than you think.”

Andrews said he wanted to close with a quote he’d always admired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Rostek said in closing he will be “the advocate for fiscal responsibility through the city manager’s office.” He said he is for controlled development and will vote no on any special favors.

“I think greater involvement of the citizens with the city is of paramount importance,” said Rostek. 

“One thing I will change — I find it appalling that you have three minutes (to address the commission), and the commissioners can only sit there and look at you and cannot respond back. I will change that to a reasonable timeframe, and it’ll be a two-way street, where the city manager and commissioners will make note of your problem and report back to you.”

Rostek concluded his remarks by saying that he will not be taking any campaign donations. 

“I’m doing this on my own,” he said, adding that the mayor’s salary, if he is elected, will be donated to the American Legion, Elks, VFW and the fire department.

“I challenge my opponent to offer the same, to donate his salary,” said Rostek.

To the residents he said, “Get out there and vote, and let your voices be heard.”

In the March 14 election, the mayoral seat is the only one that is contested this year. New commissioners in Districts 3 and 4, having no opposition, are automatically elected. The District 3 seat, currently held by Doug Andrews, will be filled by Eddie McGeehen, and in District 4, Anne-Marie Brooks will replace Commissioner Dave Hutson, who decided not to run again after serving one term. Commissioners’ terms are two years, while the mayor serves for three years.