The evening began with moderator Amanda Patanow of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area presenting questions to the candidates for Ward 1.
“What we’re doing here tonight is to provide an informed electorate,” Patanow said.
Each candidate was given one minute to answer the questions, which were submitted by audience members. During the mayoral portion of the forum, the candidates were given 30 seconds for a rebuttal.
“I have to walk my dog, exercise and I’m all yours,” said April Thanos, candidate for city council, Ward 1 when asked how much time she could devote to Gulfport if elected.
“I’ve missed one meeting in four years,” incumbent Ward 1 Councilman Dan Liedtke responded to the same question. “I’m 100 percent available.”
Other question topics ranged from golf carts on Gulfport roads to parking meters near Gulfport Beach.
Candidates for council laid out their priorities immediately after the forum began. Liedtke’s platform, he said, stemmed from his desire to keep the “working team we have in place.” He also advocated developing a new Senior Center and continuing the beach renourishment projects and Shore Boulevard improvements.
“Something like that may take three to five years,” Liedtke said, referring to both projects. “But we have to get the plans in place now for that to happen.”
Thanos’s platform included her desire to improve accountability and transparency.
“I think that the residents and businesses in Gulfport need to have more input into what’s going on with council and be able to see the progress on things that have been decided on to get done,” Thanos said. “That means that everyone has an input on the process.”
Liedtke expressed plans of his own to improve accountability.
“Government accountability means to me letting the citizens know how you’re reaching your decisions. They need to be involved in the decision making process,” Liedtke said. “Transparency leads to accountability. The city of Gulfport has done some amazing things to increase transparency.”
Liedtke credits the transition from “thick agenda packets” to iPads in council meetings and archiving information on computers for the increase of transparency.
The Ward 1 candidates did have a somewhat different take on the issue of short-term rentals.
“We have zoning districts where they are allowed and zoning districts where they are not allowed,” Liedtke said. “Where they are not allowed, they should not be allowed to run.”
Thanos, however, stated her wish to encourage tourism.
“It brings a lot of business to our restaurants and shops,” Thanos said of the rentals, “but we also want to take account of the permanent resident’s issues. We need to work together and make sure the seasonal rentals are not disruptive … Not necessarily increasing the amount or decreasing, just have a meeting where everyone’s voices can be heard.”
Mayoral candidates Barbara Banno and Sam Henderson took the stage shortly after the Ward 1 candidates.
Questions posed to the mayoral candidates closely mimicked those for Ward 1 candidates, but focused more on transparency and ways to bring more business to Gulfport.
“I want to see right on our city website links to make it easy for people to choose to open business here in the city of Gulfport,” Banno said.
The two candidates largely agreed on the topics that ranged from sewer repairs and bike trails to environmental concerns and the “gay agenda.”
“The number one thing on my priority list is we need to clean up Clam Bayou, plain and simple,” Banno said. “We need ongoing focus on our aging infrastructure.”
Henderson agreed, adding that he wants to continue projects that he has already begun.
“One of the main reasons I am running is I want to put our money where our mouth is infrastructure-wise. We already invested 1.5 million in an aging sewer system … and I want to address storm water,” Henderson said.
In perhaps the oddest question of the evening, both candidates were asked if they felt that there was a “gay agenda.”
“When I serve as mayor, I represent every citizen in this community whether they are gay, straight, black, white, old or young,” Banno said. “I don’t want to talk about being gay or being a lesbian. I want to talk about streets, the police apartment, and things that matter to you.” Banno also added, “If anyone out there can tell me what a ‘gay agenda’ is, I wish they would tell me.”
Henderson responded with a similar sentiment.
“I think from most of the folks I talked to, it’s the same as everyone else’s agenda,” Henderson said. “In the city of Gulfport, we have human rights ordinances in place. I think people want to be treated fairly regardless of what color they are, regardless of what their sexual orientation is. I think the ‘gay agenda’ is a human agenda.”
When asked about funds for infrastructure and environmental projects, Henderson responded that he had secured funds, including $1.2 million from BP, a $400,000 Brownfield grant and $500,000 for the storm water mitigation project on 49th Street.
“We’re taking advantage. It’s not as easy getting grants as we think,” Henderson said.
Banno said she too would focus on obtaining grants.
“It’s about going out there and getting funds so we can properly balance the budget and utilize those funds in our budget properly,” Banno said, adding, “Regarding grants, we should go and apply for every grant possible. But we need to apply for these grants in the proper way.”
Banno explained that she wants to have town hall-style meetings before applying for grants to get input from residents. This is part of what Banno called “getting back to the basics.”
“I want to conduct quarterly town halls, here in this room, bringing in the citizens and hearing their concerns and not putting a time limit on it,” Banno said.
“My philosophy on transparency with the city,” said Henderson, using one of the buzz words in this election, “is that it’s our job to keep a big clean window into what we do. What we’ve done is updates to the website … getting a Facebook up, getting Code Red, putting things in the Gabber; I write frequent letters to the Gabber.”
Both candidates also spoke of plans to address storm water issues and flooding in the city.
“We have a responsibility to the citizens to make sure their quality of life is a good quality of life,” Banno said in regards to complaints of flooded streets hindering people from leaving their homes.
“By the time we get to the summer,” Henderson responded, “[the city of Gulfport] will have committed $5 million dollars to repairing sewers. But there are some risks with living two feet above sea level.”
Both candidates showed their approval for some form of a bike trail/route and both candidates agreed that crime will be a priority and the city will not outsource policing.
“I am a proponent of bike trails,” Banno said, “but we went from conception to construction just like that with no citizen input.”
Henderson maintained that the process for creating a bike trail has been handled properly.
“We’re changing it based on community input,” he said. “I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The forum was braodcast on Gulfport’s GTV-640 Access Channel. You can access video of the event here.
Registered Gulfport voters will chose both mayor and the Ward 1 councilmember in the citywide election March 15. For more information on voting or local polling places, click here.