City Council candidate forum in South Tampa a gentle affair

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Kelly Benjamin, trying to upset the much better known Miranda, has taken to saying that he also wants a complete, not partial, ban on panhandling, but said it was "kind of tragic" that the issue has become the dominant one of the 2011 campaign.

It was CL's first opportunity to see District 1 candidate Tom Slaughter in action.  The 51-year-old civil engineer was the only candidate to mention the work that Pinellas County has been doing to try to find more beds for the homeless, (the Haven for Hope program, imported from San Antonio) vs. those who just say that "we need to do more." He said that plan "looks promising," and said it could be a model for Tampa to pursue.

Rick Barcena got cheers from two citizens wearing Susan Long T-shirts when he declared "there's a difference in being homeless and being a BEGGAR!"   Later candidate Long said she wasn't satisfied with the partial ban on panhandling, and wants to go all the way in that department.

When asked what programs they would cut - or that they consider sacrosanct - District 4 candidate Tony DeSisto said that he wanted to consider privatizing warehouses and janitorial services, and wanted to look at cutting 5% of city employees salaries for those who make over $100,000.

Harry Cohen said pension reform was a "critical issue for the city to deal with if we're going to get the budget under control,"a sentiment that several other candidates echoed.  He also said what portion that city employees pay for their health care coverage will also be an issue in the coming years.

Energetic District 3 candidate Michael Ciftci said he wanted to turn City Council into a customer service desk, saying, "I wanna be that resource for city council."

Regarding bike safety, District 6 candidate Susan Long said that both cyclists and motorists need to be educated on navigating roadways with both on the streets.

The District 4 candidates - which would represent South Tampa - were asked their opinion about an elevated roadway on Gandy Boulevard, a particularly unpopular idea in the area.  All 5 candidates said they opposed the overpass (Cohen said he was "unalterably against it.")

The two District 6 candidates rejected the idea of moving the municipal elections from March to November, saying the importance of the local elections would get lost with a much more crowded election ballot.  However, they failed to take into account of having such an election in November of an off year - such as this year (St. Petersburg will hold city council races this fall, for example), would not interfere with congressional or state contests.

District 3 candidate Seth Nelson got some of the biggest cheers of the evening when he said that it makes no sense when a person bringing a project for council approval gets 20 minutes, but citizens who object to that development are limited to only 3 minutes.  He also said that the council should revisit how they do zoning issues.

District 2 opponent Scott Strepina played up his endorsements from the Tampa Police and Firefighters, as well as businessmen supporting him "over the incumbent," referring to Mary Mulhern, who was a no-show due to a dental emergency.  District 3 candidate Yolie Capin was also not in the house - there was no explanation for her absence, though when she did leave a phone message with CL Monday morning she indicated that she was feeling a bit under the weather. UPDATE: Yolie Capin contacted CL Wednesday morning. She says that she was already scheduled to be out of town on February 1, and had contacted organizer Marlin Anderson about that.  She said she told him there was a chance she might make it by 7 p.m. but could not guarantee that.  Anderson did not mention that at the forum.

As everyone in Tampa politics knows, South Tampa votes in far greater numbers than any other region of the city, which is why last night's City Council forum for the candidates running in Districts 1,2,3 4 and 6 was an important event.

By not including the mayoral candidates or city council candidates in districts 5 & 7, the stage was a little less cluttered than last week's affair in Seminole Heights - this time, there were only 18 candidates fielding questions.

If Marco Rubio was all about championing American exceptionalism in his successful campaign for U.S. Senate last year, last night it was the night of Tampa exceptionalism, as several - perhaps a majority of the candidates discussed the challenges the city faces, but also indicated that it was the best place in the country, or something similar.

Each candidate was able to answer a variety of questions that the audience at St. Mary's Episcopal Church were allowed to to ask, with a panel screening them and then handing them off to News Channel 8 reporter Jeff Patterson to formally present - such as on the partial ban on panhandlng that the Tampa City Council will vote on on this Thursday.

District 4 candidate Dennis Meyers says that if he was in charge, he'd ban panhandlers, but he'd make an exception for firefighters or other "legitimate" nonprofits if they could show they had insurance to be walking on city streets. "No reason we should ban everything," he said.  "I'm a reasonably moderate guy."

One of his challengers in District 4, Julie Jenkins, adroitly indicated that such a selective ban has not been shown in Florida to be constitutional, which is the very reason why Hillsborough County is still reviewing their ordinance, which technically bans such activity right now.

Harry Cohen, also running in District 4, said he's for a ban (which all the candidates save for Charlie Miranda said they were for in some fashion), but said "the real conversation here is about economic growth."  He said that panhandling will go away once there more jobs available for people in the city.  He said leaders have to do a better job at selling the community to the outside business world.  Joe Citro said it was incumbent upon Tampa before they pass anything that they alert nearby communities, so that the city doesn't do to them what "St. Pete did to us," referring to that city's summertime ban on panhandlng that has led - at least by conventional wisdom- to the homeless descending to Tampa to beg for money.

As mentioned earlier, District 6 incumbent Charlie Miranda has been consistently against any such ban since the issue broke out last fall.  He mocked candidates who speak about growing jobs, when their first action could be to eliminate about 100 jobs (those people who sell newspapers on street medians).

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