City Council candidates hoping to represent west St. Pete answer questions from residents

08/17/11 Janelle Irwin
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The three candidates for the district one seat in St. Petersburg city council participated in a forum last night hosted by the League of Women Voters.

With the added shelter space provided by the Pinellas Safe Harbor facility that opened in January, people taking to the streets to sleep now have the option to go to a shelter, or get arrested. It’s a topic that will weigh heavily on the mix of opinions at the polls. That makes it a topic three city council candidates will certainly talk a lot about. For homeless advocates, Robert “Bob” Kersteen didn’t do himself any favors with his gaffe solution to a serious problem.

"I guess the answer is getting federal funding for the low income and building homeless facilities, apartments on the cheap so to speak. Something that provides them four walls and a room but not any of the amenities of life."

Kersteen’s opponents, Joshua Shulman and Charlie Gerdes, showed more concern for solving the problem on all levels, not just by getting them off the streets and out of sight. Both Shulman and Gerdes said they would like to see more help from agencies in dealing with what is becoming an increasingly big problem. Though Shulman said he hasn’t given the topic much thought.

"I'll be honest that's one area that I have not given lot of thought to. What we could be doing as a city. For better or worse that hasn't been an issue the west side."

Kersteen and Gerdes agreed on what they described as the city’s most needed area of improvement. They said codes enforcement leaves little to be desired. However, Shulman thinks the city’s budget should be an area of concern. He said allocating funds more efficiently could improve the city’s code enforcement by making sure there is enough money in the budget to get the job done properly.

"Codes is suffering because they've had a twenty five percent reduction in the funds that go into code enforcement. So it doesn't stand to reason that it would just operate normally without issue."

The possibility of losing the Tampa Bay Rays to another stadium in another city is another hot topic among residents. So is the fate of the iconic Pier. No one really gave a specific course of action on either item, but Kersteen said he’s after input from residents.

"If the citizens of this city are going to have many pledge to any new stadium or including the existing Tropicana Field which we fund now the citizenry must make that decision. Because it's a multimillion dollar, multi-year deal that we would be getting ourselves into."

After hearing Gerdes propose an increased presence through town hall meetings to foster more coordination between citizens and elected officials, Shulman argued it takes more than just going to meetings. He said citizens need to be able to see the entire council, and not just at council meetings.

"I do believe though we to get council out of these chambers. We need to get council meeting as we did with the budget forum around the city. So at least when people do have a chance to meet they have a change to meet with all of the council members at the same time and everyone can hear the opinion."

Gerdes then used one of his allotted rebuttals to elaborate.

"What I'm commiting to is being the most accessible and most communicative city council person District One has ever had."

The candidates were also asked whether they thought the settlement from Raytheon to residents affected by groundwater contamination in the Azalea area was adequate. They all agreed, it was not. All of the candidates said the $2500 given to residents needed to be combined with a continued effort by Raytheon to fix the problem. Shulman said the payout failed to consider the effects of what turned out to be a huge headache for homeowners.

"But what they weren't looking at is the quality of life issues for the neighbors in that neighborhood. And that is difficult to put a value on something that did need to be valued. I think more importantly is what the city can do from here. Part of that is making sure that we are holding Raytheon to task as far as the clean up and making sure the clean up is going as it should and working with the state on that."

About 25 residents watched the forum from inside council chambers at city hall. Ira Mitlin, a retired resident with plenty of his own political experience said he was disappointed with what the candidates had to say, but disappointed they didn’t discuss plans for job creation.

"Everybody says we need jobs. Nobody came up with a plan on how they do it. Just conceptually. And there are things they can do and I know because I've been involved on a federal level, that worked. In the same kind of economy and we have now.'

Mitlin said he had a pretty good idea of who he’d be voting for on August 30th, but he could still be persuaded. When asked who, Mitlin grinned and said he’d rather not say.

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