Jeff Rosenfield, Author at Florida Politics

Jeff Rosenfield

Jeff Rosenfield is a freelance journalist based in Pinellas County. The 50-year-old has covered local politics, professional and amateur sports, special events and other subjects in the area for nearly ten years for AOL Patch, Tampa Bay Newspapers and the Associated Press, among others. A self-proclaimed sports nut, Jeff enjoys attending baseball and football games, grilling-out in the glorious Florida sunshine, and covering news and events that affect residents in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.

Safety Harbor candidate forum takes on the issues

Six candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats March 13, had the opportunity to present their views on to the public Thursday night during a candidate forum at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

The large field led to a change of venue as well as a tweak to the traditional question and answer format, which saw the two opponents for each seat answering one question before the moderators from the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County moved on to another.

The result was a well-run yet somewhat choppy event that allowed each candidate to speak in two-minute bites about the issues affecting the city today, including parking, downtown development and the future of the Waterfront Park.

“I got to know the candidates, for sure,” resident Natalie Barone said after the two-hour event, which was held in the Spa’s spacious Baranoff Theater.

“With an event like this, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses, and I want somebody who is going to have the best interests of all of Safety Harbor in mind, not just the people who vote for them.”

The evening kicked off with each candidate making an opening statement, and then the questions came flying.

With the moderators flipping signs that read “1:00” and “STOP” at the candidates to help keep them on track, each contender had the opportunity to express their thoughts and beliefs about how the city should be managed moving forward.

Many questions dealt with economic development, including the possible creation of an economic development director position.

“This is a critical issue and it’s something we’re going to have to look at very hard during the upcoming budget process,” Seat 1 incumbent Scott Long said.

He noted the city worked on five site plans in the last year—more than the past five years combined—and they had 30 permit requests in one day recently, creating an extra burden on city staff and employees.

“A lot of growth is happening, and that means we do need to add staffing to handle it, or be creative in how we do it,” Long added.

However, Long’s opponent, Nancy Besore, said she wasn’t in favor of spending a reported $100,000 to hire a full-time EDD.

“That salary was going to represent, if we got it, a third of the pay raise for the entire city staff and employees,” she said.

Parking, or the perceived lack of it downtown, was also a hot topic, with Seat 3 candidate Damon Lister saying he doesn’t believe there is a parking problem.

“I think the parking question is one of perception,” Lister said. “It’s a couple days a year challenge in our city.

“I don’t think we have a parking problem, he added, noting he recently reached out to local school officials about operating shuttles from their lots during some special events. “I think we need to be walking more, I think we need to be riding bikes more.”

While the forum was mostly full of facts, opinions and political-speak, there was one humorous moment when Seat 3 incumbent Andy Zodrow, an environmental attorney, was asked a question about trimming mangroves.

“I’d be happy to comment on that. That’s what I’ve been dealing with for, literally, 25 years,” Zodrow replied.

When it came time for his opponent to respond, Lister got off this quip.

“OK, so Andy, he’s a mangrove expert,” he said to a round of laughs and applause. “I am not!”

The forum wrapped up with closing statements, with each candidate making their pitch for why they should be elected.

Longtime Seat 2 incumbent Cliff Merz said he has interacted with many residents over his six years in office, and he hopes to continue serving the community after Election Day.

“I take this position very seriously, and I look forward to continuing to work alongside my fellow commissioners in addressing the ever-changing needs of the city,” he said.

His opponent, Spencer Bell, a newcomer to the local scene with a long history of contributing to other campaigns, urged everyone to vote and participate in the process.

“I, myself have worked everywhere from the U.S. House of Representatives to the state to local level and down,” he said. “I know that everybody can feel disenfranchised about the system. But’s that’s why you must stay engaged, you must vote, you must come out you must get the change that you require, that you want, that you need.”

“With that being said, I hope that I am the individual that you choose to represent you.”

After the event, Bell spoke about his first foray into the Safety Harbor political scene.

“I think it went well,” the 33-year-old said. “It feels better not having to hold an opinion back or cater to a platform you’re representing. I’ve been in front of five thousand people before, but I was regurgitating information about someone else that’s been given to me. To be able to think of my own responses is refreshing and scary.”

Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub also weighed in on the proceedings.

“It was great to see such a good turnout,” Ayoub said.

“I enjoyed hearing everyone’s thoughts on the issues and I thought there were a lot of good ideas that were presented.”

Safety Harbor election hopefuls ready for candidate forum

Six candidates vying for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats Tuesday, March 13, will have the chance to interact with voters for the first time as a group.

Thursday night, the Safety Harbor Candidate Forum is set for 6:30 p.m. in the Baranoff Ballroom at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

Here’s a breakdown of the candidates, alphabetically by seat:

SEAT #1:

Nancy Besore

Scott Long (incumbent)

SEAT #2:

Spencer Bell

Cliff Merz (i)

SEAT #3:

Damon Lister

Andy Zodrow (i)

Five of the six candidates are well-known to Safety Harbor residents, including the three incumbents, plus former commissioner and onetime mayoral candidate Besore.

Lister ran for the commission last year, and he recently resigned as the city’s volunteer economic development liaison, and subsequently announced his candidacy, in mid-December. Lister will be attempting to unseat Zodrow, an environmental attorney who served one year on Seat 3 before being re-elected to a three-year term in 2015.

Seat 2 candidate Bell, who is challenging longtime incumbent Merz, remains the relative unknown of the group, at least locally.

According to his LinkedIn page, Bell is the owner of Bellwether Strategic Government Consulting and served as campaign manager for Jackie Toledo’s successful state House run in 2016; he is also credited on the site as being the regional director of the Republican Party of Florida from 2014-2016.

Key issues the candidates are expected to address Thursday include whether or not Safety Harbor should hire a full-time economic development director; downtown parking; improving the connectivity and walkability of the city; and how the recent development boom, particularly in the downtown district, should be managed moving forward.

Before the forum, several candidates expressed their thoughts about the event via email.

“What I enjoy most about this job is talking to residents about what’s important to them, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to answer all of the great questions that will be asked at the Forum,” said Long, who was elected to former Commissioner Janet Hooper’s seat when Hooper ran for mayor in 2017.

One of Long’s opponents in the four-person race for Seat 1 in 2017 will attempt to unseat him next month.

Besore, who retired from public office following her unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2014 only to re-emerge as a commission candidate last year, touched on a few issues she hopes the citizens will address Thursday.

“I am hopeful you will present questions reflective of concerns critical to you, many of which you have shared as I have canvassed our neighborhoods — drainage, downtown development, environmentally sensitive Waterfront Park enhancements, and preserving Safety Harbor’s eclectic nature,” Besore said.

Lister’s response reflected his enthusiastic personality.

“I am pumped for the forum, and I am looking forward to a positive dialogue about continuing to move Safety Harbor forward!” Lister wrote.

“I look forward to conversation centered around leadership, increased community engagement, city services, the health & success of our Main St, supporting local businesses and creative ideas on how to uphold (and bolster) our excellent quality of life here in Safety Harbor.”

The candidate forum will begin at 6 p.m. with a meet and greet session outside the Baranoff Ballroom at the Spa, located at 105 N. Bayshore Drive in Safety Harbor. Question cards will be accepted before the start of the forum at 6:30.

Each candidate will be given a two-minute opening statement, a two-minute closing statement, and two minutes to answer each question in between. The event is expected to last two hours.

The forum, which is being hosted by the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce and moderated by the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County, was moved from City Hall to the Spa to accommodate the large candidate field and the attendees, a decision praised by Long.

“I greatly appreciate the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa generously offering up the Baranoff Ballroom at no cost so many more residents can participate than if the event had been at City Hall,” he said.

For more information on Safety Harbor’s 2018 municipal election, visit cityofsafetyharbor.com.

Note: The Safety Harbor Candidate Forum will not be broadcast live Thursday due to the event being moved off city property, according to officials.

The event will be live-streamed on Facebook/Safety Harbor Connect.

Officials said a recording of the forum should be up on the city’s website by Monday, Feb. 5.

Belleair Mayor Gary Katica refuses to debate challenger

Gary Katica

The Town of Belleair’s 2018 mayoral election is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing races in Pinellas County, as longtime incumbent Gary Katica continues to dismiss his relatively unknown challenger, Spencer Connerat, in the lead-up to Election Day March 13.

Katica has been mayor of the small Pinellas County community for the past 12 years, and after Connerat qualified for the election in December, the 84-year-old said he has no desire to engage in a debate with his opponent because Connerat has very little political experience, doesn’t contribute to civic boards and organizations and has espoused anti-government views related to a lawsuit he filed challenging then President Obama’s citizenship.

“He has zero background. Not a thing. Never asked to volunteer for a committee or anything. Nothing. Zippo,” Katica told Florida Politics earlier this month.

“But it’s more than his inexperience, it’s his thoughts on government. I’m a Korean War vet, I volunteered for the military, and you know, I get very offended by this type of stuff.”

When questioned about Katica’s remarks, Connerat, 49, refused to get into the details of the lawsuit, which was filed in a Pinellas County small-claims court in March 2010, though he denied the mayor’s claim that the suit proves he’s anti-government.

Spencer Connerat

“If somebody’s in the government who’s not lawfully there, not duly qualified or elected, and somebody’s looking to expose that person or remove that person from office by using the judicial system, that’s working within the government,” Connerat said. “I think anyone can see that’s part of the lawful process. That’s supporting the government and the judiciary. So, (accusing me of) being anti-government is preposterous.”

After learning Katica questioned his contributions to the community and his knowledge of the issues, Connerat challenged his opponent, via certified letter, to a debate at the time and place of his choosing.

“It was delivered last Monday, and I never heard back,” Connerat said Tuesday.

“We need a buy-in from the incumbent and we haven’t garnered that support yet. I’m still waiting patiently for a response.”

Katica later confirmed he received the letter, and he also stuck with his stance of not engaging his challenger in any way, shape or forum.

“Why would I do that?” Katica said. “Why would I engage in a debate with someone who’s done nothing for this town whatsoever? He hasn’t functioned in Belleair in six years, other than to read his “manifesto” at a council meeting that went over like a lead balloon. I’ve been mayor for 12 years. People know exactly what I’ve done. I’ve received support from at least a dozen people publicly backing me in the newspaper. A debate serves no purpose other than to give him publicity. And why would I do that when he’s never done a thing in Belleair?”

Katica, a former police commissioner in New York and longtime Cadillac salesman who also served on the commission from 2000-2007, said: “This is the most bizarre election I’ve ever been involved in my life.”

For his part, Connerat insists he has been involved in the community, including attending “some” commission meetings and going door-to-door and speaking with voters about issues during the qualifying period for this election, as well as when he ran for commission in 2016.

He also claims to have asked to volunteer for boards but he “never heard back” from the city, and he said he believes contested elections are beneficial to the political system.

“I think it’s important for people to have a choice,” Connerat said. “It’s tough to unseat an incumbent. Incumbents have a lot going for them. But it’s not a right, it’s not a title. No one’s entitled to the office ad infinitum. It’s something that, in my view, needs to be earned.”

Asked if he believed Katica would eventually respond to his request to participate in a candidate forum, Connerat was hopeful.

“Our campaign is just waiting for a response,” he said. “I’m hopeful there will be one. I’m ready to debate the issues.

Katica’s response?

“He can keep hoping.”

Belleair mayoral candidate responds to Gary Katica’s remarks

Spencer Connerat

Last week, incumbent Belleair Mayor Gary Katica spoke with Florida Politics about his opponent in the upcoming election, 49-year-old Spencer Connerat.

The 84-year-old Katica, first elected in 2007 and ran unopposed in the last three elections, called out Connerat for his inexperience when it comes to town affairs as well as what he characterized as his anti-government views, stemming from a “manifesto” he said Connerat read in front of hundreds of residents during a commission meeting several years ago.

“The guy that I’m running against, oh, about five or six years ago was the only time he was ever at a public hearing, and there was about 300 people here about the Belleview Biltmore,” Katica said. “And during his comments, he got up and read his manifesto while people were hissing and booing.”

Katica said the speech “went over like a turd in a punch bowl,” a claim Connerat did not dispute when we caught up with him last week.

“I read the document in January 2014,” he said by phone. “The mayor presided, he gave me my time and even admonished the crowd to be quiet, as there were a couple of hissings. I really appreciated that.”

Connerat said the document was from a case he filed in a Pinellas County small-claims court in March 2010 against then-President Barack Obama seeking “to record a true and correct copy of such tacit admission of ineligibility of the Office of the President of the United States of America.”

Further research reveals Connerat had previously written letters to Obama, dating as far back as his initial presidential campaign in 2008, asking “Senator Obama to provide proof of your status … as required by our Constitution.”

Gary Katica

Essentially, Connerat was a believer in the Obama “birther” conspiracy movement.

While he declined to comment directly about the contents of the case, saying “the document speaks for itself,” Connerat said the purpose of the lawsuit was to promote governmental and judicial accountability, not undermine it.

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s such a big deal to the mayor,” he said, adding “it has nothing to do with being anti-government, it has to do with support of a legal process.

“If somebody’s in the government who’s not lawfully there, not duly qualified or elected, and somebody’s looking to expose that person or remove that person from office by using the judicial system, that’s working within the government. I think anyone can see that’s part of the lawful process. That’s supporting the government and the judiciary. So, (accusing me of) being anti-government is preposterous.”

Connerat, a compliance analyst at a financial advisory firm who ran for city commission in 2016, said he did not want to engage in a war of words through the press with his opponent.

“One of my goals is I’m running a positive campaign, so I want to speak positively,” he said. “Negativity is something I’m eschewing, to use a big word.”

Regarding Katica’s claim that Connerat never participated on civic boards or committees, Connerat said: “I’ve asked in the past to be considered for a board or committee, I even asked the mayor directly, as a way to get involved and I didn’t get a call back about that request.”

Asked if he was serious about contending, Connerat was adamant that he was in the race to try and win it.

“I think it’s important for people to have a choice,” he said, noting he went door-to-door and sent emails to registered voters and ultimately collected 40 signatures, 15 more than the city requires in order to qualify. “It’s tough to unseat an incumbent. Incumbents have a lot going for them. But it’s not a right, it’s not a title. No one’s entitled to the office ad infinitum. It’s something that, in my view, needs to be earned. It’s easy to say as an outsider, but incumbents should welcome competition because it makes that person sharpen his game.”

For his part, Katica said he welcomed competition, but only if his opponent was better qualified to be a leader of the city.

“I’ll take competition anytime,” he said. “But this is bizarre.”

Despite Katica having stated he doesn’t plan to debate his opponent before Election Day March 10, Connerat plans to request the two participate in a public forum.

“I’m going to write the mayor a letter inviting him to a debate at the venue of his choice, and we can invite the public,” he said.

“One of the outcomes of elections, typically, is debate and discussion if the issues,” Connerat added.

“Win or lose, it doesn’t necessarily matter, if there’s discourse and dialogue about how to improve the city or town or society at large. When you talk to the issues, things come to the fore, so yes, I’m happy to discuss them. I have a lot to learn from people who have been around for a long time, but I think it would be fun as well.”

Safety Harbor candidate forum gets venue change

The 2018 Safety Harbor candidate forum has received a venue change, moving from the City Commission Chambers at City Hall to the Baranoff Theater at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

The event is still set to start at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1, with a meet-and-greet in the foyer, followed by a two-hour question and answer period in the 150-seat theater.

According to officials for the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring the forum, the venue change was necessitated by the large candidate field — six candidates qualified to run for the three open commission seats Tuesday, March 13.

“The forum has been moved to a larger venue to accommodate the larger crowd that six candidates could draw, and we thank the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa for providing this,” chamber President Susan Petersen said via email.

“It is important to us to present a fair and open forum, where there is room for all, at which the candidates can be heard on current relevant topics, so that the voters can make well-educated decisions for the future of our city. The Baranoff Theatre is the perfect setting for this with seating for all.”

Petersen said the chamber’s board of directors would provide moderators from the Pinellas County League of Women Voters with questions for the candidates.

She said the public would also be given the opportunity to submit questions before the start of the forum, and she noted a representative from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections’ office would be on hand to assist with voter registration and updating voter records.

Also, with the forum now taking place off city property, some of the restrictions surrounding the event have been lifted.

Whereas campaign materials were prohibited at City Hall, those materials, including pamphlets and campaign signs, will be allowed to be displayed at the Spa.

The venue change also forced the city to scrap plans to livestream the event, as they don’t have the capability to stream events outside City Hall.

According to City Manager Matt Spoor, a video of the event should be up on the city’s website by Monday, Feb. 5.

Spoor also said city officials fully support the venue change.

“The City supports the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County in their collective desire to provide the most accommodating venue for a growing number of interested voters,” he said via email.

“A big THANK YOU to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa who graciously volunteered to host the event in their Baranoff Ballroom. This location will allow for maximum voter participation, which is everyone’s ultimate goal.”

For more information on the 2018 Safety Harbor municipal election, visit cityofsafetyharbor.com.

Belleair Mayor Gary Katica bullish about upcoming election

Mayor Gary Katica (courtesy Town of Belleair)

Longtime Belleair resident and Mayor Gary Katica isn’t one to mince words.

In fact, the 84-year-old ex-police commissioner from New York recently admitted he is a “no B.S. guy.”

So, it’s no surprise that when Katica, who moved to Belleair in 1984, was asked about having to run for a fourth consecutive term against relative unknown Spencer Connerat following the end of the qualifying period Dec. 19, he responded by candidly saying he was “running against a nonentity” and called the upcoming election Tuesday, March 13, a waste of taxpayer dollars.

One month removed from those comments, Katica hasn’t changed his opinion of the race, or his opponent, one bit.

In fact, if anything, Katica has ramped up his pre-election rhetoric.

“The guy that I’m running against, oh, about five or six years ago was the only time he was ever at a public hearing, and there was about 300 people here about the Belleview Biltmore,” Katica said by phone over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. “And during his comments, he got up and read his manifesto while people were hissing and booing.”

Katica went on to add Connerat “looks really good, he talks really nice, but when you read something like that to the citizens of Belleair, what can I say, it went over like a turd in a punch bowl.”

When asked to describe the contents of Connerat’s speech, which he said took place in 2009, Katica said “essentially, it’s a manifesto against the president of the United States and the United States government. And this guy has not been to a public meeting since, he has not participated in anything with the town of Belleair, and he calls me up about the last week or two in November and tells me he’s gonna run for mayor against me.”

A check of the city’s website revealed meeting videos do not go back as far as 2009, making Katica’s claims about the content of Connerat’s speech impossible to immediately verify, and attempts to reach the candidate over the holiday weekend were unsuccessful.

However, the 49-year-old Connerat, who has lived in Belleair since 2001 and ran for city commission in 2016, said after the qualifying period ended that he felt “there should be a competition for elected office” and “it is good to have competition.”

When asked about those remarks, Katica said it wasn’t just Connerat’s inexperience that bothered him, but his opponent’s political beliefs.

“He has zero background. Not a thing. Never asked to volunteer for a committee or anything. Nothing. Zippo,” he said. “But it’s more than his inexperience, it’s his thoughts on government.

“I’m a Korean War vet, I volunteered for the military, and you know, I get very offended by this type of stuff.

“If you’re going to be involved, anybody that’s ever been involved (in politics) in my time, and I was appointed as commissioner in (2000) and I’ve run for mayor three or four times and it’s always been unopposed, because I’m an ex-police commissioner from New York and I’m a no B.S. guy, and we do what we have to do. I’ve been through the Belleair Biltmore (sale), and we worked that out. We worked out the drainage (issue) in Bellaire, we’ve worked out the erosion of the bluffs. I mean, what can I say, I’ve lived here since 1984 and I love this town.”

Katica, who went on to become a successful car salesman following his retirement from the force in 1977 and has worked at Dimmit Cadillac in Clearwater since 1981, said he has no plans to debate Connerat.

“I hope not. I don’t want to sit up there with him,” he said.

He also said he isn’t worried about facing the political newcomer at the polls in March.

“Since he put his name on the ballot, he hasn’t been to anything, he hasn’t volunteered for anything or done anything,” Katica said of Connerat.

“And the worst part is, it’s costing the town five thousand dollars to have a contested election, one that he is certain, absolutely certain, to lose.”

For more information on the 2018 Belleair municipal election, visit townofbelleair.com.

Six candidates to vie for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats

Six candidates will be running for three open city commission seats in Safety Harbor’s 2018 municipal election. The qualifying period ended noon Tuesday for the March 13 ballot.

The candidates, listed alphabetically by seat:

SEAT #1:

Nancy Besore

Scott Long (incumbent)

SEAT #2:

Spencer Bell

Cliff Merz (i)

SEAT #3:

Damon Lister

Andy Zodrow (i)

The group is flush with political experience at the local and state level.

Long, Merz and Zodrow are incumbents seeking another term; Besore served six years on the SHCC and ran for mayor in 2014 and commission last year; Lister ran for Seat 1 last year and recently resigned as the city’s economic development liaison to run for Seat 3 this year; and Bell is a relative unknown in town but a veteran of Florida politics who led Jackie Toledo’s successful campaign for State House in October and served as the regional director for the Republican Party of Florida from 2014-2016.

The depth of the field and experience of the candidates is impressive, as well as a good sign for the city moving forward, according to Mayor Joe Ayoub.

“It is great that so many people are willing and interested to put themselves out there and go through the rigorous process of running a campaign so that they can hopefully serve our community,” Ayoub said via email.

“It benefits our residents and our city as a whole to have so many qualified candidates debating the issues and sharing their vision so that our citizens can have a choice in how our city is governed and the direction it is taken.”

The six candidates are scheduled to participate in a forum Thursday, Feb. 1, beginning with a meet and greet at 6 p.m. at Safety Harbor City Hall, located at 750 Main Street.

For more information on Safety Harbor’s 2018 municipal election, visit cityofsafetyharbor.com.

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