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The Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce held a virtual candidate forum on Wednesday, Jan. 27. The hourlong event, which featured five of the seven candidates vying for three open city commission seats March 9, was moderated by former Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and allowed voters to get to know the candidates a little better prior to Election Day, according to chamber president and chief executive Susan Petersen.

SAFETY HARBOR — There’s an old baseball saying, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” and that adage could easily apply to the 2021 Safety Harbor City Commission races.

Seven candidates, including two incumbents (Seat 1’s Nancy Besore and Seat 2’s Cliff Merz), two former commissioners (Seat 3 opponents Scott Long and two-term mayor Andy Steingold), and a trio of political newcomers (Seat 1 opponents Heather Norton and Lorraine Duffy Suarez, and Seat 2 candidate Liz Lindsay), are vying for three open seats on March 9. Five of the seven agreed to participate in a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 27. Besore and Lindsay declined.

Although there was no question-and-answer session, the event provided an opportunity for voters to get to know the participating candidates a little better with just six weeks to go before Election Day.

“It’s so important for you to know your candidates so you can make an intelligent decision on March 9,” Susan Petersen, the chamber’s president and chief executive, said to open the hourlong event. “So, this evening we are going to have that opportunity.”

The Seat 1 contenders made their opening statements first and Norton, an OB-GYN who has never held local office, said she’d “like to be more involved in our local community,” with priorities that include “recognizing the importance of each individual and their connection to the community, COVID recovery, particularly with supporting local businesses,” as well as focusing on family and education. “Safety Harbor is a great place to live so we’d like to keep it that way,” she said.

Suarez, who serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, noted she brings three-plus decades of experience as an urban planner to the table, and she said she believes her “credentials alone are really strong,” while her “passion for community building” is her strongest asset.

“I have a deep understanding how government works,” Suarez said, adding, “I have a passion to treat people fairly, a passion to make sure all voices are heard, and it’s this passion that led me to run for City Commission.”

The race for Seat 2 features a face familiar to Safety Harbor voters. Cliff Merz has served on the commission since 2012 and has represented the city on several boards and organizations in that time, including the PSTA, Forward Pinellas and the Suncoast League of Cities.

“Over the last three terms I’ve strived to be a respectful, optimistic and independent-minded public servant who listens to all expressed comments and concerns and then diligently works to address and balance the ever-changing needs and desires of our community,” said Merz, an engineer.

Seat 3 figures to attract a lot of attention because both candidates are widely known to local voters.

Long, a magazine publisher who served for one year before losing the race for Seat 1 to Besore in 2018, said that “serving as commissioner was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and I have so much more to give to this great city. Commissioner is a part-time job, but I gave it a full-time effort.”

After citing some of his accomplishments, including adding signal lights at railroad crossings and supporting the growth of the downtown as well as the sunshade and living shoreline at the Waterfront Park, “all in one year,” Long noted he championed communicating with constituents through social media and other means. “Citizens know they can count on me to get ahold of me quickly to get stuff done,” he said.

Steingold, a former city commissioner and mayor who was first elected in 2005, touted his record of being fiscally responsible and spearheading environmental efforts, including Safety Harbor’s grand tree ordinance, during his time in office.

“When I initially ran for the city commission in 2005, I promised to be fiscally responsible, to be a voice for our many neighborhoods, to preserve Safety Harbor’s way of life, and to provide open communication for all residents,” Steingold said, adding, “for those 12 years of serving I kept each of those promises.”

After acknowledging their similarities and admitting he “even voted for Andy once,” Long said the difference between the two opponents is “the election is about Safety Harbor’s future, not its past.”

Steingold countered by stating he has a “12-year record of getting things done around Safety Harbor,” and he said his goal is “to keep Safety Harbor and make it a better place for my children and your children. I have the passion to serve the citizens of Safety Harbor, and I have the vision to serve the citizens of Safety Harbor … and my vision isn’t from yesterday. My vision is moving forward.”

After the event, Mayor Joe Ayoub spoke about the crowded, diverse field running for office this year.

“I think it’s great we have so many people who want to serve the community and make a difference in Safety Harbor,” Ayoub said by phone. “I think the more people the better, because it gives voters the opportunity to decide who should lead the city.”

Noting due to the pandemic there’s a lot going on in the city, Ayoub said the election helps “brings the issues to the forefront and gets people engaged, and I’m looking forward to working with whoever the people vote into office on March 9.”

A video of the 2021 Safety Harbor candidate forum can be viewed on the city’s website, cityofsafetyharbor.com.