OLDSMAR — The League of Women Voters, in conjunction with the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, staged a candidate forum featuring the 2019 City Council candidates on Jan. 8.
Seat 1 candidates Matt Clarke, Andrew Knapp and Linda Norris participated in the event, held in the Council Chambers building, while Seat 4 incumbent Jerry Beverland was seated next to his opponent, Katie Gannon, on the right side of the dais.
The winner of the Seat 1 contest will serve the remaining two years of Mayor-elect Eric Seidel’s term, while Gannon and Beverland are vying for a full three-year term on Election Day, March 12.
Judging by the size of the overflow crowd, as well as the variety of questions submitted by audience members, the forum was considered a huge success.
“I thought it went very well,” Jerry Custin, the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce’s director of business, manufacturing and education, said at the end of the 90-minute event.
“I was very happy with the size of the crowd. I thought the questions were substantive and, for the most part, the answers were, as well. I think it was one of the best candidate forums I’ve ever been a part of.”
The sentiment was echoed by several attendees after they had the opportunity to get to know more about each candidate, including the three newcomers to local government. Of the five candidates, Beverland and Norris have extensive council experience. Clarke, Knapp and Gannon, however, have never served public office.
“I really learned a lot from each candidate, about their plans and expectations for the city,” Mariann Kruse said afterwards. “I think hearing them speak and knowing if they are able to talk off the cuff, is very important. So, this really helped me pick out the candidates I want to vote for.”
Led by moderator Anne Decker of the league’s voter service committee, the candidates fielded an array of questions curated from the audience. They shared their thoughts about subjects including downtown development, sustainability, the biggest challenges they would face during their terms and whether they believed in Oldsmar’s motto—live here, work here, play here.
While the answers to those questions were fairly rote, Decker allowed each candidate to ask a question of the other four. The responses produced laughs, as well as quizzical looks, from candidates and audience members alike.
“What is one of your biggest weaknesses?” Gannon, an attorney, asked.
“My mouth,” Beverland, a longtime veteran of the local political scene known for saying exactly what’s on his mind, quickly replied. That drew a huge laugh from the room.
Clarke, a native of Australia known for his community work, said his shoulder was his biggest weakness, while Knapp, a manufacturing engineer at Oldsmar-based medical and surgical tubing maker Microlumen, admitted he realized he has a tendency to take on too much responsibility following a meeting with his boss.
“I didn’t realize it, but as soon as he told me that I started coming up with a plan, a matrix, to distribute my workload instead of taking it all on my own,” Knapp said.
Norris, who termed out of office in 2016, gave perhaps the most disarming answer.
“I’m gullible because I trust people, and I trust that if I tell them the truth, they’ll tell me the truth,” she said. “I tend to learn later that it wasn’t true, so I’m trying to work on that.”
The structure of the forum fostered openness and honesty, said on the people who attended, Kay Wolfe.
“It’s the reason I came,” Wolfe said. “I pretty much know who I’m going to vote for, but I needed to reaffirm that, and this event helped me do that.”
“I thought it was great. They got them to open up a little bit,” Frank Ciccolo said. “It helps to see how they’ll react when they’re in positions they might not be comfortable with.”
Seidel made an opening statement that keyed on his main goal as mayor, developing downtown. He also praised the turnout and participation at the forum.
“I was excited to see the turnout,” he said. “It shows the interest the community has in its elected officials, and I think the diversity of the candidates is an excellent sign of the progress being made in the city. Whoever the voters decide on March 12, I look forward to working with them.”