The newcomers said the commissioners are know-it-alls who don’t listen to their constituents. And the incumbent said his opponents have no idea what they are talking about.
That was the tone of a Monday, Jan. 11 preliminary election debate held to allow residents to ask questions to District 1 candidates Lynn Larson, Lee Pokoik and Lee Rothenberg.
The three candidates are facing a runoff election Tuesday, Jan. 26, in which voters island-wide will decide which two candidates will face off in the town’s March 16 municipal election.
A crowd of more than 75 people filled The Longboat Key Center for the Arts cultural/media room to hear the District 1 candidates discuss the issues at a debate sponsored by The Longboat Observer and The Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a division of Ringling College of Art and Design.
Larson started the debate by telling the crowd she’s running for office because the current commission doesn’t listen to the voters.
“What happened to our vision plan and why are our commercial properties falling apart?” Larson said. “Nothing seems to be happening.”
Pokoik agreed with Larson in his opening statement.
“I am running for office because I am very disturbed that the commission isn’t listening to you people,” Pokoik said. “You voted to get term limits and you won’t get that if the mayor is re-elected.”
Pokoik, a retired real-estate manager, also said he believes the commission doesn’t give Town Manager Bruce St. Denis enough direction and isn’t doing enough to help revitalize aging commercial-and-residential facilities.
Rothenberg responded in his opening statement by going over his list of service to the community and expressing disbelief with his opponents’ statements.
“My initial concern with what my opponents just said is they don’t understand what’s going on at Town Hall and how the commission operates,” Rothenberg said.
When the floor was opened up to questions, it became clear that the majority of residents were interested in how the candidates stood on The Longboat Key Club and Resort’s Islandside renovation-and-expansion project.
When former Mayor Ron Johnson asked the newcomers how they would be brought up to speed if they were elected before a decision was made on the project, both Pokoik and Larson said they are watching the project closely and want to see a compromise reached.
And both candidates expressed frustration that the commission is only now expressing concerns about how the town’s Comprehensive Plan could affect approval of the project.
“I hate to see everyone go through hearings and then the commission doesn’t act on it, because the plan needs major revisions,” Pokoik said. “That’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“Why is this issue just being raised now after all these meetings have been held?” Larson said.
The mayor, however, said it doesn’t matter whether the plan is reviewed before the project is presented or afterward. And he reminded everyone he cast the lone vote Friday in favor of reviewing the Comprehensive Plan first.
While Pokoik and Larson told residents they would push for the Key Club’s five-star hotel to be built first, Rothenberg warned those in attendance that the club can’t guarantee the hotel will be built at all.
“Don’t think if the club should get their approval, you will automatically see a hotel,” Rothenberg said. “We don’t have the power to force them to do something like that.”
After more than a half hour of Key Club project discussions, all three candidates agreed that the 30-day minimum rental rule is a good one and that mixed-use commercial property should be revisited as a way to revitalize commercial properties like Whitney Beach Plaza.
But that’s where the similarities ended. The three candidates clashed on raising taxes, beach renourishment and ways to fix massive debt in the town’s pension plans.
Rothenberg said the town’s financial condition is far from strong and he would vote to raise taxes if it’s wise to do so.
Pokoik and Larson, however, said they no see no reason why taxes need to be raised at all, suggesting that the budget needs more careful review.
All three candidates, however, agree that police- and fire-rescue services need to be maintained and not cut any further.
And, although Pokoik said he believes the town needs to share the costs with other municipalities for the purchase and maintenance of a dredge for continual beach maintenance, Rothenberg said the suggestion had been reviewed and was too expensive.
Rothenberg also pushed for support of the town manager, who was not evaluated publicly last year. Both Larson and Pokoik, however, said evaluations were critical and questioned the town manager’s salary-and-benefits package.
When the more than $27 million in unfunded pension liabilities was brought up, Rothenberg said the debt would be paid down over time. But Larson and Pokoik expressed disbelief and frustration with the mayor’s comments.
Larson, a police-pension fund trustee, said it’s the town’s fault that the plans weren’t managed correctly.
Rothenberg, however, said the commission has no control over how the boards run the funds.
Both Pokoik and Larson want to see the town move the three pension plans to the state’s retirement system.
When Key resident Lenny Landau asked Larson and Pokoik what two things they would like to see changed if elected, Pokoik called for a uniform sign code and better cell-phone reception.
Larson said she would push for a renovation overhaul of Gulf of Mexico Drive and a complete review and overhaul of what she perceives as out-of-date town codes.
Rothenberg, however, took the opportunity to show why he thinks his opponents aren’t aware of what the commission is doing and how it works.
“We have already received $500,000 from the state for Gulf of Mexico Drive landscaping; we have re-written codes to allow for better cell-phone reception; and the planning board has recently held meetings to review the entire sign code with residents and business owners,” Rothenberg said.
During their closing statements, both Pokoik and Larson urged the audience to consider them because they are younger and want to bring a new energy to a commission that they don’t think is working hard enough for its constituents.
Rothenberg, though, reminded residents that he has yet to see either of his candidates sit through an entire commission meeting.
“I am only interested in what’s best for Longboat Key,” Rothenberg said. “I would like to finish what I started and hope you agree that experience counts for something.”
Contact Kurt Schultheis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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