Candidates Debate Recreation, Police And Accountability In Morningside
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - While citizen turnout at last week's candidate forum in the Morningside neighborhood was disappointing, numbering about 45 attendees, the questions they submitted were challenging and probing.
This report explores several of the more contentious issues that were raised, with quotes from the candidates' responses.
Not surprisingly, the first question concerned rebuilding the soon to be demolished Morningside Recreation Center in a timely manner using Penny for Pinellas funding. The candidates responded, in part:
Paul Gibson (Seat 3): "The simple answer is we have the Penny money to build it, but not the General Fund dollars to operate it. What is more likely is that we're going to be closing rec centers, not opening rec centers. We're not really in a position where anyone can commit to this. I don't think any candidate can say they support it right now because we simply don't have the money."
Mike Riordon (Seat 3): "We have so much money put away it's not even funny…If you want to really find out what's going on with our resources, go to MyClearwater.com and learn about where the money is and how it's moved around in a shell game, and you'll find out that there's more than enough money for your rec center."
Joe Paige (Seat 4): "I'm not necessarily against using Penny for Pinellas money to build that rec center. Here's the part you're not going to like; you folks are going to have to fund that with maintenance and if you want that rec center, we can put an assessment on your property tax bill to fund that. My philosophy maintains that if the city builds something, it should be self-supporting."
Bill Jonson (Seat 4): "I believe that we have a serious problem with our budget. We need to take no action in the short term. I could not commit to you that it would be rebuilt in 2, 3, 5 or 6 years. I will commit that the money should be preserved in Penny for Pinellas, and once we get through our budget reappraisal, we can look at some options.
Herb Quintero (Seat 4): "If our house was in order, then I would say, that, yes, we'd have to close the rec center and not build another one. But we spend an enormous amount of time and money fighting small businesses, attacking our firefighters - we're 0 and 17 in arbitration hearings against the firefighters and that's cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars. What we need to do is think outside the box. No one's ever even thought about having a corporate sponsor to build and maintain this rec center."
Wayne Carothers (Seat 4): "I guarantee you if that rec center was down on the beach, we wouldn't be having this discussion. I'm all for restoring that center. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and it serves a purpose, and again it's city hall not listening to you folks. When they tell you that they don't have the money for that, don't believe that for a second, because look at what they do have money for: millions of dollars for that wasteful spending they did on Cleveland calming and Beach Walk went over budget by millions of dollars."
The candidates responded to a question about the possibility of outsourcing Clearwater's Police Department to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office: What measures would you take to convince the mayor that he should contract for policing with the Sheriff's Office if the Sheriff can provide the same or better services for millions of dollars less?
Riordon: "I would never turn down a free proposal if the Sheriff of the county I lived in said 'We'd like to show you what we could do for you'. I can't comprehend how the Sheriff Department could provide the same service at the same level, and I'm an advocate of having a local Police Department. But if they could provide the same quality of service or better and save $10-million, sure I'd definitely take a serious look at it. It would take a lot to convince me that we would get comparable service and save $10-million."
Paige: "I've said it before and I'll say it again; in this atmosphere, everything has to be on the table. I'd be willing to look at everything. However, any proposal from the Sheriff's Office has to come with an ironclad guarantee of cost savings and carved in stone it must maintain the original levels of service. If we save money and our crime rate goes up, it's really not a savings. I think the Clearwater Police Department does an outstanding job, but we need to look at everything. Nothing is sacred in this atmosphere. Would I look at it? Absolutely.
Jonson: "I agree that in this budget year, we've got to look at every expense in the city and look at any alternatives. I would ask for the guidance of our professionals in our Police Department. There was recently a study done of the Dunedin Sheriff's service, and I have not had a chance to look at that, but I think that we should look at all of the references and make sure that we're doing the right thing for the people. Back room services can be done commonly and should be done that way, but if you're on the front line interacting with the public, I think we need to have more control in that, unless there's something I'm missing."
Quintero: "Without question we have the responsibility to the taxpayer to look at any savings. That is a significant amount of money - $10-million. Recently we did an efficiency study of the Police Department and they came with a million dollars that we could save. Mr. Gibson spearheaded the efficiency study; there's not $10-million to be saved. If there is, we need to look at it. I love my brothers in blue; I hate to see them displaced in any way, and economy is not always the best value here. There's a good feeling about having a hometown Police Department, and I don't believe that we'll get the same level of service if we change. But $10-million is a lot of money and we need to look at every proposal that's out there."
Carothers: "It's my opinion that we have the best police force in the nation, and I really mean that. The county says that can save us $10-million and I know that's attractive, but look at their record. They do control Dunedin. We haven't seen the proof there yet. They said they were going to do a study and show they've saved $10-million; I haven't seen it and I don't think we will. I would be very hesitant in bringing in the county. I know the county does a lot of our services now, but I would leave the Police Department alone unless I heard otherwise. Until I see more, I would say no.
Gibson: "The Sheriff actually lives in Clearwater on Sand Key. He called me one day and said, 'I want to talk to you about this.' So we did talk about it and I asked him a couple of key questions. One of them was 'How does our compensation level for our officers compare to the compensation of your officers?' He [Sheriff Jim Coats] said, 'Well, it's about the same.' So if we're already outsourcing a tremendous amount of police services, where's $14-million going to come from? 'Well I don't know. I have people who work on that,' Coats responded, according to Gibson. I can tell you where it's going to come from - it's going to come from reduced services."
Two questions were combined into one relating to city leadership and accountability: Who do you think is guiding the future of Clearwater, the City manager or the City Council? Will you be afraid to hold the City Manager accountable for continued mishaps, and would you be willing to terminate his employment?
Paige: "I think the city staff should be held accountable. I think what has happened in recent years is instead of the City Council directing the staff, it's been vice versa…We have a bunch of these staffers running around with different ideas that may not comport with the philosophy of the City Council…The City Council needs to take a more direct approach and direct the City Manager to direct the staff. Would I fire the City Manager? That was one of my ideas before when he raised the millage rate last year. I said, 'If I was sitting in a City Council chair at that time and you came to me with a millage increase, I would fire you.' Everyone must be held accountable"
Jonson: Who's guiding the future of the city? I agree, it should be the City Council, your elected representatives. Several years ago we did a visioning session that I initiated; we got a lot of input from you folks on what you wanted your city to do. The next step is how did that get implemented, and that accountability flow down? I found that the once a year annual appraisal of the City Manager was inadequate. I found that I was the only one that was really giving constructive feedback at those sessions…One of the things I would want to change is to do performance feedback at least three times a year with the City Manager and agree on some expectations up front and hold him accountable for that."
Quintero: "The person running the city is the City Manager, that's the form of government we have. The people that should be running the city is you, nobody else. You need to elect the right people, put them in the right positions to hold these people accountable for their missteps. The City Council cannot address any city staff, we can only make recommendations through the City Manager. The buck stops there; he needs to be accountable for their mistakes, that way he will make them accountable for theirs. Until we hold him accountable for that, we're going to have the same thing over and over again… We need to have the tail quit wagging the dog here, and we need to start implementing our philosophies as your elected officials."
Carothers: "Who should be guiding the future of our city? That's us, we the taxpayers, the citizens, we have control, we should be the ones guiding the direction we want to go, and the input goes to the Council. The Council's job is to gather all the information before them, whether it's here or Countryside, wherever it is it's us…I believe it's the Council's responsibility to get it right, and the manager's job to implement what the Council says. It's us, the people. We need to stand up and be more voiceful…When people don't show up and express their interests, City Hall does what they want, and that's what the problem is.
Gibson: Under our form of government, the City Council is responsible for setting policy, and the City Manager is administration. We decide what's supposed to be done, and he's in charge of implementing it. We actually meet with the City Manager frequently. I meet with him every Thursday morning for an hour and a half and go through eight pages of notes, including any e-mails I get from citizens, so it's not like he's not getting input. He's got 1,600 employees; this is a huge operation…There's a lot going on. This is not a job you can micro-manage. I think what it boils down to, in some cases, is we might not have the right people, and that's what has to be looked at."
Riordon: Approximately a decade ago, the City Council was weaker than what I believe it is today, and hired the wrong man. They hired a man that wasn't even qualified to be a candidate for the job…I have nothing against the military, but you don't come out of the military as a base commander and have the credentials to be a City Manager; it's a very different job. He has decimated the morale of our firefighters. This gentleman has had multiple raises; the firefighters haven't had a ratified contract in eight years. They haven't had a cost of living increase in five years; it's just an atrocity. He's also brought in military personnel that he's chosen that has just compounded the problem; we have the wrong personnel. I would vote for a mayoral form of government."
Return to Current Edition