People come up to me and say they vote in the state and national elections but don’t vote in local elections. I tell them that the local elections are often the most important ones because they directly affect people’s lives,” says Alan Johnson, the newly elected mayor of St. Pete Beach. “I want people to be involved. The more people involved the better.”
Johnson said he was approached by former St. Pete Beach Mayor Maria Lowe to consider running for the mayoral position. At the time, Lowe was planning to move to France with her family but had not yet announced her resignation.
“It took me a month to decide. I had been retired for 12 years and didn’t need the income,” said Johnson. “But I have lived here longer than any place in my life and thought I could concentrate on helping the community.”
During his years as a resident, an appointee on the St. Pete Beach finance board and co-founder and director of the St. Pete Beach Classic, one of the city’s biggest events, Johnson says he built up a lot of goodwill with businesses and individuals alike. He was the clear winner in the St. Pete Beach mayoral race on March 14, with 61 percent of the vote, defeating interim Mayor Deborah Schechner and opponent John-Michael Fleig. But Johnson is quick to stress that he is part of a team effort.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said. “But we have a good commission that wants the best for the city and we have a great city staff.”
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski has known Johnson for more than 15 years.
“He really cares about our community and has been involved in making St. Pete Beach a better place to live. His profession as an engineer will assist the city as we deal with basic infrastructure issues such as our sewer system, storm water system and streets. He has already made a positive impact as mayor over the last two months.”
To keep the lines of communication open with residents, Johnson started bimonthly Mayor’s Open Office meetings in April at the St. Pete Beach Public Library on the second and fourth Monday of each month from 6 to 7 p.m.
“I decided to have the meetings on the Monday before commission meeting on Tuesday so I can ask the city manager to add concerns to the meeting agenda as discussion items,” said Johnson. “There’s been a good response. I can keep people up to speed because I’m immersed in information.”
According to Johnson, concerns expressed at the meetings to date include the sewer system, the ongoing Pass-A-Grille Way project and the Blind Pass Road construction, which is a county project.
“I knew going in that the biggest challenge would be infrastructure. We’ve already approved the Sugar Sands Project, a partnership between the Tradewinds Resorts and the city. They’re going to underwrite the city’s plans at a one-and-a-half percent interest rate,” said Johnson. “There has to be a balance between St. Pete Beach being a tourist destination, a residential community and business-friendly. We’ve argued over it and litigated ad nauseum, but after a few changes to the plan that Tallahassee dictated, our current comprehensive plan is doable. I didn’t want the city to increase much more debt. The agreement with the Tradewinds helps.”
According to Johnson, the city’s sewer projects are a major part of the budget for the next three to four years. Representative Kathleeen Peters, R-Treasure Island, has also asked for $2.5 million from the state of Florida to help with the city’s sewer issues.
“There are 17 pumping stations and three main stations. Three are complete and we are almost done rebuilding the other pumps,” said Johnson. “Last year, the city used cameras to determine where the lines had to be fixed. The relining will restore the lines to make them like new without having to tear up the ground. The city plans to upgrade for whatever capacity we might need in the future.”
Johnson said road projects are next on the agenda after the sewers are done, including the next phase of the Pass-A-Grille Way project, beginning construction on Blind Pass Road to Gulf Blvd this summer and work on Boca Ciega Drive over the next couple of years. Other priorities are addressing parking, vacation rentals and working with businesses toward a more cooperative relationship.
“I don’t want the city to be held hostage to people who threaten lawsuits,” said Johnson. “The key is to keep talking to people. Democracy is very much a team participation sport. It is not a passive activity. I think attitudes are changing.”