South Pasadena’s mayoral candidates met in a contentious forum held by the League of Women Voters on Wednesday, February 10, an event that saw multiple arguments and accusations, as well as the temporary ejection of an audience member.
The tense debate between current commissioner Max Elson (Finance Department) and incumbent Dan Calabria was moderated by the League’s Joe LeBas, who read questions from the audience.
The forum began civilly with both candidates making note of their top initiatives if elected, agreeing for the most part on issues such as bringing new business to town and finding other revenue sources for the city.
“I think the most pressing issue is our finances,” Calabria said. “We are limited. We don’t have a lot of room for expansion and we need to attract new businesses and make it inviting. I would like to find a way to provide incentives.”
Candidates were asked about South Pasadena’s form of government, and whether they think it is time for a change, as the current commission-mayor style used by South Pasadena is rarely seen these days.
“I don’t know if it is time to change , but I think we owe it to ourselves to explore and investigate what other alternatives are available to us,” Calabria said. “For example, would it be possible to talk about merging together with another city? That might make sense and give us more muscle, more revenue.”
Elson felt differently.
“I do not think it is time to change it,” he said. “I think that our form of government has worked very well for us. It is a very expensive solution to a problem that perhaps we don’t really have; and that is the need for a city manager.”
The previously tame forum became a little less civil as each candidate continued to disobey the one-minute answer time limit and accusations crept into their responses.
“I think the fire department is the biggest asset the city has,” Elson said in response to whether the city should keep the department.
Calabria agreed, adding “contrary to literature … saying that I am interested in getting rid” of it.
“That is a lie,” Calabria said of the accusation. “And anyone who says that knows they are lying.”
Elson was not given an immediate chance to respond, to the dismay of some in the crowd.
“He called him a liar!” shouted one audience member.
“I believe being called a liar deserves an opportunity to respond,” Elson said before he was granted a 30-second rebuttal, which again ran over the allotted time.
“I hold in my hand,” Elson said holding a sheet of paper. “An email, written on Saturday, September 20, 2014, by Dan Calabria.”
Elson proceeded to read from the email: “’Why shouldn’t we at least explore or investigate turning over FD and EMS to St. Petersburg for a fee?’”
Calabria stood behind the email, however, justifying that he had asked for a fee.
The forum was interrupted briefly by an argument between the candidates and the removal of one audience member, Tom Rask, after his refusal to stop video recording of the event, which had been prohibited. Rask was let back in after a brief conversation with a police officer and was allowed to continue the use of his camera.
LeBas proceeded with the event, asking about the impact of several lawsuits brought by Calabria against the city. Calabria has previously filed suit against the city in 2015 in an effort to prevent the commission from voting to remove him. The lawsuit and subsequent appeal was dismissed by the court. His suit also attempted to collect court fees. The legal fees, according to the Tampa Bay Times, are in excess of $20,000.
“That suit was dismissed, and subsequently, an appeal was dismissed,” Elson said. “Unfortunately, the issue of paying for it hasn’t been dismissed. We’re into thousands and thousands of dollars based on the mayor’s lawsuit against the city.”
Calabria claimed that a lawsuit was his only choice given that the commission wanted to vote him out of office, saying that they had “no right” to do so.
A question about bicycle friendliness quickly turned into a debate about Pasadena Avenue and the inability to reduce the number of lanes, a proposal Calabria fought.
According to Calabria, Pasadena Avenue is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and South Pasadena has no jurisdiction on what it can do to it.
“They own the roads,” Calabria said. “They tried to cut the road down from six to four lanes. One of the most incredibly bad moves you could have dreamed of. Not only that, but the city attorney at the time in 1999 told the city you can’t do that, it is illegal. We don’t own it; we’re lucky they let us cross the street. Raise your first if you want to cross the street.”
Elson’s answer also involved Pasadena Avenue.
“It was absolutely never planned to be four lanes,” Elson claimed in his rebuttal. “There was one vote. And that was in May 14, 2014, three months after Dan was in. We passed a resolution to totally eliminate the language from the comprehensive plan, and Dan voted against that by the way.”
Calabria referred to the meeting on May 14, 2014 as a “bogus emergency.”