Dunedin commission candidates share views on key issues at virtual forum

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, top left, is seeking her third term as mayor, and faces a challenge from Commissioner Heather Gracy, top right. Former Commissioner John Tornga, bottom left, is running for Seat 3 against Mike Quill, a businessman and retired longtime law enforcement officer.

DUNEDIN — To build or not to build. Plans for a new city hall remain a hot topic as two candidates for City Commission and two for the mayor’s seat were split on the issue at a virtual forum Sept. 29.

The candidates were asked by moderator and retired journalist Al Ruechel for their views on the proposed 38,500-square-foot municipal facility on Milwaukee Avenue, Wood Street and Louden Avenue.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, who is seeking her third term as mayor, said commissioners have not voted to build the complex yet.

They voted recently to finish the design of the complex to get it shovel-ready in case stimulus grants are available to help fund it, she said.

Whatever action commissioners take will not require a tax increase, and most of the funding for the municipal complex is coming from the Penny for Pinellas, Bujalski said, of which one-third is paid by tourists.

"We need it for our employees. We've got 25% of our workforce scattered all over the city. What's really important is a government should be providing essential services, and they should do it in an efficient way. And we will not move forward until we know we can afford to do so," Bujalski said.

Her opponent, Commissioner Heather Gracy, voted against the motion July 21 to proceed with the construction document preparation. She was the lone dissenter in the vote.

Gracy said at the forum she could not support moving forward with the project because she thinks the cost of $22 million is exorbitant for a government building.

"The more I travel around Dunedin on the campaign trail the more I get to talk about this. And the residents are a bit alarmed at the fact we are building something new," Gracy said.

She also expressed concern about funds taken out of the operating budget just for plan drawings that could be used to help reduce the budget deficit.

Former Commissioner John Tornga, who is running for Seat 3, said he's not supportive of the project at this time.

"I think we have taken a dangerous step with some of our reserve funds," Tornga said.

The city does "not need to have a 100-year building because I don't think we know what's going to be here in 100 years" or how the city is going to function, he said.

His opponent, Mike Quill, a businessman and retired longtime law enforcement officer, spoke in support of the project, saying that it's important to him that city employees have a safe environment for working and for citizens to have a place to come and do business.

Currently, city services are offered at different locations.

"We need to find a way to build that (City Hall). I heard the city manager loud and clear. She wanted to do due diligence, she wanted to get a design, permitting and construction docs done so she can … get a hard number and be shovel-ready and I agree with that," Quill said.

Also during the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce forum, presented by St. Petersburg College Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, Ruechel asked candidates to comment on code enforcement actions that resulted in national press coverage stemming from a Dunedin homeowner facing $30,000 in fines he accrued in 2018 for unmoved grass. The city moved to foreclose on the home.

"It never should have happened, if you really want to know the truth," Bujalski said. "Unfortunately, the commission is not part of the day-to-day code enforcement process, so we were certainly surprised when it came about. But we are definitely working on fixing the problem."

New employees were hired, including a city attorney. The city is rebranding the department from code enforcement to code compliance, and fines are being capped, she said.

"We are having a tiered fine system and we are doing an amnesty program. It's really important that we balance both — compliance as well as the residents' voice," Bujalski said.

Gracy said residents' complaints about code enforcement actions are valid. She said there will be improvements at the staff level and with the hiring of a new city attorney.

During the selection process for the new city attorney, which is the Tampa firm of Bryant Miller Olive, Gracy used the time to see what their opinions on such issues could be, she said.

"Returning that voice to them by way of changing policy, by way changing rules at different board levels, that's what we owe to our residents," Gracy said.

Quill said he thinks Dunedin has taken great step with a new policy and ordinance stipulating there is one fine for violations and it's not cumulative.

He said he also asked that city officials add an educational requirement for the pollution penalty codes regarding illegal dumping.

City commissioners over the summer adopted a stormwater management ordinance.

"This is all good. It's not doom-and-gloom, and I think we are on the right track, and I support the city's efforts with the training component added," he said.

Tornga said he attempted to find out at a City Commission in February some information about code enforcement actions involving fines and properties but didn't get a response.

"He seemed to me like we were going way overboard, and I didn't know who was directing it or why that was happening," he said.

He said he was asking such questions on behalf of residents and shareholders.

People losing their homes because they didn't cut their yards — that shouldn't happen, he said.

On other topics, Bujalski and Gracy were asked why they should be elected mayor.

Bujalski said that what she loves about Dunedin is that the community comes together when it faces adversity and is the envy of the county.

Residents have said what their priorities are: overdevelopment, traffic, affordable housing and servicing businesses citywide, she said.

"Those are your issues, so those are my issues," Bujalski said.

"Dunedin deserves a leader that is accessible during good times and bad. One who cares about the soul of our community. Leaders who truly listen will reflect your voice in their votes. And I believe I am that voice that you can count on. The voice you can trust," Bujalski said.

Gracy, who was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election to Seat 3, said in deciding to run for mayor, she wanted a better path forward for residents.

"And by a better path forward I'm talking about there is a lot of times the city should be more welcoming rather than weary. I want to welcome all of the new homeowners and businesses that come to Dunedin," Gracy said.

She said listening to code enforcement stories and listening more to residents who have conflicts is important to her and is what started her asking questions and convincing her why she wanted to be mayor.

A resident of Dunedin since 1988, Quill is a businessman who owns real estate in downtown Dunedin. He retired from law enforcement as a command-level officer and was acting police chief for the city of Gulfport during his tenure.

He said at the forum that he considers himself a lifelong public servant, having served on several boards and committees in city government. He served for 10 years as chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

"As your commissioner I will make policy my priority. Your voice matters to me, and I hear you. These are the issues you care about: traffic and parking … Affordable housing. We have to create a policy to provide a cycle of housing from cradle to grave," Quill said.

Tornga, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, also has served on several city committees, including as chairman of the Finance Board, and has been a vice president in several capacities for companies.

Having served as commissioner, he said he knows it's important for residents to assess the character of the commissioners and be aware of their experiences and backgrounds.

"As your commissioner, my promise includes to focus on fiscal responsibility, a balanced budget with no tax rates or assessments" and focusing on cost savings without sacrificing services, Tornga said.