Seminole City Council candidates answer questions on city issues

Five candidates are vying for seats on Seminole City Council in the 2019 election. Incumbent Leslie Waters, top left, is running against first-time contender Darren Clark, top right, for mayor. Three candidates — incumbent Thomas Barnhorn, bottom right, Jim Olliver, bottom left, and Kelly Wissing — are running for two open council seats.

SEMINOLE — Five candidates are vying for seats on Seminole City Council in the 2019 election.

Three candidates — incumbent Thomas Barnhorn, along with Jim Olliver and Kelly Wissing — are running for two open council seats.

Meanwhile, incumbent Leslie Waters is running against first-time contender Darren Clark for mayor.

Seminole’s municipal election will take place Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Barnhorn has sat on council since March 2006. He is an LPL financial advisor with an accredited asset management specialist designation with his own firm, Barnhorn Financial.

He has been involved with the Florida League of Cities, sitting on the finance, taxation and personnel committees, as well as the National League of Cities, where he serves on the Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations Steering Committee and the Small Cities Steering Committee. He’s a former eighth district director of the Florida League of Cities and past president of the Suncoast League of Cities. Barnhorn also currently serves on the Area Agency on Aging Pasco Pinellas Advisory Council.

Olliver, former provost of the St. Petersburg College Seminole campus, retired from SPC in 2015 and has remained involved with the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce, where he currently serves as board president and chair.

He also currently serves as chair of the city of Seminole’s Municipal Firefighters’ Pension Trust Fund Board of Trustees and is vice chair of the city’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Committee. He’s a past member of the city’s Charter Review Committees (serving in 2009 and as vice chair in 2014) and past chair of the Pinellas County Charter Review Commission in 2015. He was selected as Mr. Seminole in 2008.

Wissing ran for council in 2018, coming in third place and taking home 19.65 percent of the vote. Raised in Seminole, she serves as the School Advisory Council chair at Starkey Elementary, and is a Starkey Elementary PTA member, spending several years as a past board member. She’s also the chair of Starkey Elementary’s auction event. She’s an active volunteer for the Old Salt Fishing Foundation, sat on former U.S. Rep. David Jolly’s Fishery Council in 2014-2015, and is chair of the Celma Mastry Ovarian Cancer Foundation Fishing Tournament.

Clark, a graduate of Largo High School and resident of Seminole for eight years, is the owner of a construction company, Professional Restoration Services of Tampa Bay, which specializes in disaster restoration. He attends BridgePoint Church’s Seminole campus, where he serves on the production team. He has also been involved with Fresh Start Ministries.

He also recently trained with the Community Emergency Response Team, earning his CERT certificate. He’s sat on several homeowners’ association boards, currently serving as second vice president for his HOA.

Waters has sat on City Council since March 2009. She served as interim mayor from November 2012 through March 2013, when she was first elected mayor. She is also a former state representative, a role she held from 1998 through 2006.

She has sat on the Florida League of Mayors board of directors, and is a member of the Florida League of Cities, the Suncoast League of Cities, and the Pinellas County Mayors Council. She has received the Home Rule Hero Award six times from the FLC.

She also enjoyed a 29-year career with Allstate Insurance Company, working in human resources, community affairs and government relations management.

The Seminole Beacon recently sent some questions about city issues to all five candidates. Their responses are below.

Why do you think you’re the best candidate for council/mayor?

Thom Barnhorn: I believe my passion, drive and heart for our city makes up part of the reason I believe I am the best candidate, but it goes beyond that. I have the institutional knowledge to lead and the relationships that allow me to bring things to our city council others do not. I have a business-trained mind with extensive knowledge of business and government financing; combined with both my head and heart, I can continue my fiscal responsibilities to our city’s residents. My involvement began with a desire to expand the hours of operation of our library and recreation center. Something residents had wanted and since both have much longer hours opened. I have built county, state and federal relationships that help me accomplish the objectives of residents and businesses that have come to me. I also am open to listen to all concerns and if they pass the head and heart philosophy, I will try to champion them. 

Darren Clark: I believe the city is ready for a change. When the same people are in office for an extended period of time, things become stale. New faces bring new ideas and new visions to the city. I will be the voice for the constituents, which I don't feel they have had for some time. The current administration seems to have an agenda and will do whatever it takes to make that happen, regardless of what the residents say or want. I only want what's best for my city. I got into this election for that reason only. I made the decision to run my campaign based on facts, not personal attacks.

Jim Olliver: I have the experience, the knowledge and the leadership skills to most appropriately address the complex issues facing the city, bring a fresh perspective on those issues, and have a long history of effectively working with area civic and governmental leaders to get things done.

Leslie Waters: I have lived with my husband, Al Waters, in the city of Seminole for 40 years, and have served in various leadership positions at two levels of government, committee chairmanships in the Florida House of Representatives, as well as the esteemed honor to serve as Speaker Pro-Tempore in the Florida House of Representatives, and as vice mayor, interim mayor and mayor on Seminole City Council. My education and business credentials are sound, in that I have received two degrees from Florida State University, (a) bachelor’s and a master’s, and have had a strong business career in various management positions with Allstate Insurance Company. I am the founder and proprietor of Leslie Waters Government Relations consulting firm.

My community activism in Seminole and the greater community has included coordinating citywide canned food drives, citywide “Sock it to the Mayor” drives providing socks for the homeless and veterans/military, as well as a citywide Cleaning Supplies Drive for PEMHS Mental Health to provide to underserved families…Over the years, not only have I served in the Florida Legislature, but after I termed out I have been very involved with political advocacy with the legislature on behalf of protecting Home Rule, and other legislative issues impacting cities. My experience is vast in business, community activism and in government, and the citizens of Seminole would be well-served in re-electing Mayor Leslie Waters to Seminole City Council.

Kelly Wissing: I bring a fresh, new perspective to council. I am not stuck in the thought process of “because it’s always been that way.” I am not a politician. I am a Seminole resident who loves her city and I want to be the voice of the people. I am here to work for the city and its residents. I have a strong passion to make a difference and that starts with all of us. I want to represent the changing faces in Seminole and make sure that we are progressing without changing what we love most about our city. I am supportive of reasonable growth that is in the best interest of our residents in addition to what our city employees can support.

What do you think are the top three issues currently affecting the Seminole community?

Barnhorn: Completing our parks and recreational facilities that are currently being upgraded while maximizing grants to save residents money and keep our taxes low. Managing current growth. Maintaining the council’s fiscal responsibility that has allowed our city to become debt free.

Clark: My first order of business would be to secure an acceptable contract with the fire union. We have lost somewhere around 62 firefighters in the past few years to neighboring municipalities. The firefighters deserve a fair wage. The special magistrate agreed after being presented all the facts. The city manager chose not to take the magistrate's recommendations. Morale is down (in the) fire department. We need to offer them a package which will retain them for as long as possible. Some of these first responders have lived in Seminole for their entire lives. They have gone through the Seminole school systems. They own homes here. They should work in their own town and not drive to neighboring cities for better wages. Second, I feel the city has a leadership problem. I would like to see a new city manager hired who has the best interest of the residents in mind. Third, I feel (Code Enforcement) could do a better job. I have personally witnessed homes which have been neglected and don't meet code, according to the Standard Housing Code. The city of Seminole website specifically states that they follow these codes. Yet these houses have sat in disrepair for several years. We have begged the city to do their job, but nothing gets done. This affects everyone. Home values are directly related to how neighborhoods are maintained. Seminole is not a big city. Homes shouldn't sit neglected for years without pressure from the city. A codes vehicle should drive through every street in the city at least once a week. 

Olliver: Infrastructure, including traffic and safety issues. Budget stability — creating and managing a budget to meet all the city’s needs while keeping taxes low. Economic development — working with our businesses and schools to foster growth without overwhelming our infrastructure.

Waters: Redevelopment of two parks — Orange Blossom and Waterfront parks — and the Repetto property into a revenue-producing asset. Infrastructure projects related to drainage, road paving and sidewalk enhancements. Major enhancements of recreation services and facilities.

Wissing: Employee morale, controlled growth, communication.

What do you think is a long-term concern for the Seminole community that city leaders should be considering now?

Barnhorn: Since the council approved the building of the Seminole City Center, Seminole has become a destination and we want that growth to continue. We have added jobs for our residents, places to shop, eat and live local. We must become diligent as to the balances of builders’ (whether they build residential or commercial) and the residents’ needs, finding a way to mitigate the problems and inconveniences on our residents as they are our reason for being here. That will be my number one goal when I am re-elected. 

Clark: Maintaining their first responders, who they have invested money and time into. Seminole has become a revolving door for first responders. We spend somewhere in the vicinity of $30,000 per person for training only to watch them walk away after for better wages. I personally would want only the best to work on myself or a family member. Long-term employees come with experience.

Olliver: The city is currently looking at stormwater and road repair issues. These are areas where comprehensive, continuous planning is important. There are also the ongoing negotiations with the Seminole firefighters.

Waters: The city will continue to develop long-range plans, and short-term goals. The city of Seminole is the only government body that I have known that will be debt-free within days, (Sept. 30), which means all loans and bonds will be paid-off. This stellar accomplishment is a resounding tribute to the fiscally conservative leadership of the city of Seminole, including City Manager Ann Toney-Deal, her staff and council members. Becoming a debt-free government body and at the same time still providing excellent public services throughout the city is a stellar accomplishment. This status includes no lay-offs of city staff over the years, and no increase of taxes in 13 years. Residents of our great city are proud of the manner in which our city is managed and governed. People stay in Seminole and move to Seminole due to our fiscal approach to the expenditure of tax money, green space, and neighborhood safety and security. Also, economic development efforts will continue to be of importance, as seen with the recent opening of the Seminole City Center, with scores of popular restaurants and shops, as well as S.S. White and Shukla Medical, Walmart and Holiday Inn Select.

Wissing: I believe we need to start with working on our city morale. Without our employees being invested in our city, we can’t make changes and count on them to be engaged long term.

During the city’s recent negotiations with the firefighters’ union, an impasse was declared. When a special magistrate released two decisions siding with the union on all areas of contention, the city’s negotiating team, led by the city manager, rejected his advice. This forced the Seminole City Council to act as a third party making the final decisions regarding this current fiscal year’s contract. How do you think the city should approach these negotiations in the future? Do you think the city’s negotiating team erred in not following the magistrate’s recommendations? Why or why not?

Barnhorn: The procedure is in place for impasse. It is designed to allow the council’s choice and will, after hearing both sides. I believe the city team did their job when they did their presentation. 

Clark: I truly feel the city erred in not following the magistrate's recommendations. Why would they pay this person $5,000 for their expert opinion and then refuse to accept his recommendations? It baffles me. That's the leadership issue I am referring to. The city needs to quit boasting about being debt free and spend whatever money is necessary to retain these valuable assets. 

Olliver: It would not be appropriate nor do I have the detailed knowledge to make recommendations in this area at this time. If elected to council, I would take a complete look and listen carefully to all the history and background materials. Clearly there was information needed during the impasse hearing that was not known, available or remembered by the council members. A critical part of my job as a city councilor will be to have all the information necessary to make the best decisions, and to have the right questions asked and answered.

Waters: The city is in the middle of firefighter union negotiation and as mayor I am unable, per law, to publicly discuss this issue. But I do understand that both sides of the negotiations, however, are pleased with the progress being made toward their 2019-2020 contract.

Wissing: In regard to the question on the approach to future negotiations, I believe that the city manager and negotiation team should not dismiss an impartial decision given by the magistrate. Council should hold the city manager responsible for positive outcomes. Although we may not be able to meet every demand, creating an atmosphere for conversation and opening up the lines of communication is key. The city should approach the negotiations by creating a more proactive approach and work as a partnership instead of an adversarial approach. The magistrate was in place to read the contract and make unbiased recommendations taking both sides’ interests into account. The city chose to ignore the expert recommendations leading to a continued impasse to the detriment of the city. However, (because of) the high integrity of our firefighters, they continue to provide the best quality of service to our city despite the status of union negotiations.

Negotiations with the fire union have been, at times, contentious, and some former Seminole Fire Rescue employees and members of the public have had negative things to say about the city’s handling of the matter. How do you think the city can improve its relationship with SFR employees?

Barnhorn: I hope it happens on both sides of (the) table, but to accomplish that, both sides must come to the table. Realizing that the residents’ cost must be controlled as well and the city needing to stay within its financial constraints, while providing reasonable compensation and benefits is our goal. 

Clark: They can start by actually listening to them. They seem more concerned with the balance of their bank account than they do about their own employees. 

Olliver: Again, it would be unfair as a candidate with limited information to comment on continuing personnel matters. My pledge would be to investigate and determine if and how extensive a problem there is, and how the city can best address it.

Waters: As mayor and (a) citizen, I value our firefighters. My family was a recipient of their excellent response to a medical matter this year.

Wissing: First, we must create a positive atmosphere starting with (Seminole) City Hall. Second, (the fire department) needs to feel that we are listening. Listening as council and a community.

Recent reporting by the Seminole Beacon suggest there is low morale among some city of Seminole employees. Do you think there is a morale issue among city employees? If so, what do you think should be done to improve morale?

Barnhorn: I haven’t experienced that the morale was poor with those I have interacted with. 

Clark: I totally agree that there is low morale. Seminole went from being one of the most respected fire departments to the butt of the jokes to neighboring fire departments. Since I announced my candidacy, I have received several messages from neighboring fire chiefs and personnel laughing at us. They have made comments like, "Until you figure out how to treat your first responders, we will be glad to take them off your hands.” How has it ever gotten to this point? Poor leadership. That's how. 

Olliver: My experience working in a large organization with many employees is that there are always some with low morale and some with high morale. The reporting included examples of both. Again, since I have limited information, I’m not in a position to speak definitively about it, but I have experience working with morale issues in a large organization, and believe I can effectively identify the nature of any problems and a blueprint for addressing them.

Waters: In the 10 years that I have been on Seminole (City) Council, I have never received one negative comment, e-mail or phone call from an employee about their job or status with the city. Until I hear otherwise, I can only believe that employees overall are pleased with their employment with the city of Seminole, and if they are not, I would encourage them to speak to the Human Resources Department for assistance with a resolution, as do employees in most organizations throughout our city, state and country

Wissing: When I have been at City Hall, I have heard from employees (present and past) that they feel unappreciated and unhappy with the current atmosphere. The first item I would suggest would be to hire a consulting firm to create a climate survey. This survey would be anonymous asking for honest feedback without repercussions. Secondly, I would conduct a focus group to get more in-depth feedback to find out the specific challenges in the workforce. Then create employee improvement teams that would work collaboratively with management on ways to improve the work experience for employees as a whole. It is vital for the city employees to be engaged in their jobs to provide the best quality of service to our citizens.

Do you have any concerns about City Manager Ann Toney-Deal’s job performance?

Barnhorn: At this time, I believe the city manager has done mostly an excellent job. Any suggestions I feel she may benefit from will be in her review. 

Clark: I do have concerns. I don't feel that she has the best interest of the residents in mind. Again, she should have taken the recommendations from the (special) magistrate. I have also had issues with her regarding my own personal home.

Olliver: This question, like some of the others, is not appropriate for me as a candidate to answer. There have been a number of comments pro and con about the city manager’s performance, as reflected in her evaluations. I would need to have personal experience working the city manager as a councilor to be able to properly address (this) question. She has a different management style than her predecessor (Frank Edmunds) and my experience tells me that there can be very different responses to administrative leadership when there is a change in style.

Waters: No, not at all. Ann Toney-Deal is a well-regarded city manager within the city as well as statewide, with decades of experience in municipal leadership. (She’s a) member and former president of her professional organization, (the) Florida City-County Management Association. In her four years with the city of Seminole, she has helped direct numerous distinguished fiscal and budget awards…as well as CPA accolades for Seminole being fiscally sound. She has enthusiastically overseen our annual Seminole Citizen’s Academy, that scores of citizens have attended through the years, (the) addition of an annual hurricane seminar at the beginning of every hurricane season, and has assured that the city maintains the Tree City USA designation.

(She) has helped to maintain a tax rate of 2.4793 for city residents, which is one of the lowest in Pinellas County, and has been instrumental in achieving an unheard of debt-free status for the city…This is huge in that the city will have no loan or bond debt. I personally have never heard of any government body that is debt-free. Her oversight has approved many public works, recreation, library projects that are currently in the pipeline. She monitors the very valuable funds that the city receives from Penny for Pinellas, assuring expenditure on targeted city enhancements. I enjoy working with Ms. Deal, and respect her opinions on city issues, city planning and city budgeting. Seminole is very fortunate to have her as our city manager.

Wissing: My concerns grow as the SFD negotiations unfolded. As the city manager, it appears that Ms. Toney Deal negated the recommendations of an unbiased magistrate. If this was done on such a significant matter, what other issues are not given a full and fair consideration? This being said, I do believe that some behaviors can be modified and possibly changed with the proper guidance.