Safety Harbor election hopefuls meet the public at candidate forum

The eight candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats were introduced to the public at a forum held at the Safety Harbor Community Center on Thursday, January 19, 2017.

The eight candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats were introduced to the public at a forum held at the Safety Harbor Community Center on Thursday, January 19, 2017.

The eight candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor Commission seats in the March election faced the public for the first time as a group on Thursday night during a candidate forum hosted by the Pinellas County League of Women Voters and the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce at the Safety Harbor Community Center.

And despite early reservations about candidates having little time to adequately respond to questions due to the restrictions that were needed to accommodate such a large field, no one was complaining about the format following the event.

“I thought it was very well organized,” Seat 4 incumbent Carlos Diaz told Safety Harbor Connect.

“The questions were very good, and the two minutes to respond was enough time to get your point across without going off on too many tangents.”

“I thought it went fantastic,” Seat 1 hopeful Scott Long said. “I was really impressed with the questions they asked. They were very topical. I was worried with so many candidates we might not have enough time to respond, but two minutes was enough for most of them.”

The issues were addressed in nine questions that were selected from audience submissions by moderator Beth Hovind, as well as in the candidates opening and closing remarks, and they covered many of the hot-button topics that have been debated in the city of late, including the state of the downtown district, future economic development, the status of the city’s parks and rec system and what to do with the Firmenich property.

The eight candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats were introduced to the public at a forum held at the Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 17.

The eight candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats were introduced to the public at a forum held at the Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 17.

During their opening remarks, mayoral candidates Joe Ayoub and Janet Hooper both pledged to improve certain elements of Safety Harbor while reiterating their promises to help unify the community.

“If elected, I will lead this city with an exciting vision,” Ayoub, a former mayor and city commissioner, said during his opening remarks. “This vision includes a more vibrant, and a more thriving, downtown which is desperately needed.”

2017 Safety Harbor mayoral candidate Joe Ayoub.

Safety Harbor mayoral candidate Joe Ayoub.

“It will also include taking greater measures to protect our small-town charm, protecting property rights, moving forward with improvements to our Waterfront Park, and reaching out to the developer of the proposed seven-story condo building and negotiating a reduction to the height and scale of that project,” he continued.

“All this will be done under the umbrella of me leading the city with a positive tone and an inclusive style. There’s too much at stake in this election, and frankly, there’s too much divisiveness in this city. It’s time for real leadership, and it’s time to bring the city together.”

“I think there are some keys issues, and I think there’s some challenges Safety Harbor faces today, and part of it is who we are as a city,” Hooper, who recently resigned from Seat 1 to run for mayor, said.

Safety Harbor candidate forum 2017-4

Safety Harbor mayoral candidate Janet Hooper.

“Safety Harbor has changed, and it will continue to change and grow, but it’s how we grow and whether we can protect that core personality that drew us all here that we cherish so much. Because growth doesn’t have to destroy the very essence of what Safety Harbor is and what we all fell in love with.”

“I agree that there shouldn’t be divisiveness,” Hooper concluded. “I agree that some of the things that have been said shouldn’t have been. But part of it is people having different viewpoints. And that’s part of the struggle that we have.”

Over the next two-and-a-half hours, each candidate got to reveal aspects of their private and professional lives and their plans should they get elected.

With a wide variety of experience represented on the dais, including local lawmaking veterans Hooper, Ayoub, Diaz and Seat 1 hopeful Nancy Besore, civic board members Long and Damon Lister, and political newcomers Cameron Boozarjomehri and Luanne Lambert, unique ideas, as well as shared perspectives, were brought to the table.

Regarding the subject of economic development, Long, a Code Enforcement Board member and former chair of the Public Art Committee, said he would like to see the city hire an economic director, a sentiment that was echoed by Ayoub, Hooper and Diaz, who said he believes the downtown district needs an “anchor” to bring visitors in.

Seat 4 incumbent Carlos Diaz.

Seat 4 incumbent Carlos Diaz.

“The downtown lacks an anchor, a go-to place,” Diaz said.

“We need an anchor restaurant or business that will get people from the whole area to come to Safety Harbor.”

On the controversial subject of setbacks, which was addressed in a ruling by the City Commission earlier this week, Seat 1 candidate Lister said he would’ve voted in opposition of the ordinance that was passed on Tuesday, while Besore said she “was very comfortable with what the Commission did” in increasing the setbacks in the R2 district.

“Safety Harbor is a diamond, and if you want a big house, I want you to have it,” Besore said. “But if we have too many of them, we won’t recognize ourselves.”

In response to a question about the long-vacant Firmenich property, Long said it was unfortunate BayCare pulled out of a proposed development at the site; Ayoub said he would like to see a mix of light industrial, office, retail and green space on the property, which Diaz agreed with; and Hooper said that while she, too, liked the BayCare project, she would also like to see a portion of the 34-acre parcel used for recreational purposes.

Seat 1 candidate Nancy Besore (l) answers a question at the candidate forum on Thursday night

Seat 1 candidate Nancy Besore (l) answers a question at the candidate forum on Thursday night

“I like housing in the back. I think that’s a good use of that space,” Hooper said. “But there is absolutely no, other than the city park, recreational areas in Safety Harbor.”

“We have small family parks. We have lots of those all over the city,” she added. “But if a kid wants to play soccer, he pays $500 to go play in Clearwater. We have no big open space where there’s recreational activities for kids on it.”

Seat 1 candidate Cameron Boozarjomehri.

Seat 1 candidate Cameron Boozarjomehri.

While there was an air of formality to the evening and the candidates were cordial throughout the event, there were a few moments of levity, such as when 25-year-old Seat 1 hopeful Boozarjomehri said he would like to utilize creative opportunities like the recent Pokemon GO! craze to bring more consumers to the city.

There were also a few awkward instances when candidates had to pass on answering questions they were not sure about.

But overall, the forum served as a successful method to introduce the candidates to the community as they spend the next eight weeks on the campaign trail stumping for votes.

“The format really helped me,” Patty Schwartz, a St. Pete resident who has family in Safety Harbor, said.

“In two minutes (response time) you got to know who the person was and what they were about. As a spectator, you got a good idea of where everybody stood on the issues.”

For video of the Safety Harbor candidate forum, please click here: RECORDED LIVE COVERAGE OF 2017 CANDIDATE FORUM. 

Stay with Safety Harbor Connect for complete coverage of the 2017 municipal election, including exclusive interviews with the candidates.

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