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Date of Issue: August 20, 2008

Election forum offers candidate views

Joe McClash, incumbent candidate for Manatee County commissioner in District 7, meets voter John Lasson of Bradenton during an Aug. 13 candidate forum.
Pat Arends of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County welcomes candidates Joe McClash, Jane von Hahmann and Greg Witham to the panel during The Islanderís candidate forum Aug. 13 in Holmes Beach.
Citizens, most of them supporters of candidate Jane von Hahmann, applaud at the conclusion of a candidate forum sponsored by The Islander Aug. 13 at Holmes Beach City Hall. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff

John Lasson sat apart from a crowd of citizens sporting T-shirts promoting their chosen candidates.

“I came with an open mind,” Lasson of Bradenton said as he awaited the start of The Islander’s Aug. 13 candidate forum at Holmes Beach City Hall. “I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for.… I just want to see what they have to say.”

“I haven’t made the big decision yet either,” Lasson added, referring to the presidential race.

Lasson seemed to be one of the few without a chosen candidate at the forum, moderated by Pat Arends of the Manatee County chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Most of the people in the audience wore T-shirts urging in bright red lettering a vote for incumbent County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, who faces Bradenton Beach Vice Mayor John Chappie in District 3, which includes Anna Maria Island and Cortez.

A few people wore bright orange T-shirts endorsing incumbent County Commissioner Joe McClash, who faces Greg Witham in the countywide District 7 race.

Others in the audience said they’d decided on their candidates, but didn’t care to advertise.

The forum took place with less than two weeks of campaigning remaining before the Aug. 26 election.

McClash, von Hahmann and Witham each took an opportunity to solicit votes from the audience.

“Vote for me,” McClash said.

“I want your vote,” von Hahmann said.

“I ask for your vote,” Witham said.

Chappie did not attend the forum, choosing instead to attend a dinner hosted by a campaign contributor.

The tenor of the forum was friendly, with the candidates getting a gentle wave of a pencil from Islander publisher Bonner Joy when they exceeded their two-minute allowance on an answer, and with all three candidates offering courteous remarks and praise for one another.

The candidates made opening and closing comments, responded to a series of general questions from Arends and spoke to a variety of issues.

McClash said as a commissioner he has sought to preserve Manatee County’s character. “If we change too much,” he said, the county will deteriorate “into a place that we don’t want to belong to.”

“It’s a jewel,” he said. “I want to preserve it.”

McClash’s opponent, Witham, also expressed his love for Manatee County. “I have lived here all my life,” he said.

He added that he has seen the community change, but he has not seen county government adapt.

“I haven’t seen our government be able to maintain the pace and do things in a cost-effective manner,” Witham said. “Our businesses are closing doors. People are relocating.”

Von Hahmann said since she joined the commission, the board has “done the best we can to protect and preserve Manatee County.”

Pointing out Chappie’s absence, she added, “I have always been a representative of District 3.”

Von Hahmann and McClash, as incumbents, touted their records and experience. Both, when asked about term limits, said voters should expel elected officials, not mandated term limits.

Witham promoted change and observed, “At some point there should be a cut off. We need change.”

Asked to comment on the Bush administration’s push to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, McClash and von Hahmann said opening Gulf of Mexico waters to more drilling should be a last resort, if at all.

“For me,” von Hahmann said, “our whole country needs a holistic approach to energy. Drilling will not be the panacea.”

“We need to be strong in our voice that we don’t like this,” McClash said. “It’s just too risky for us.”

Witham said offshore drilling will be expanded and Floridians must be involved in the planning “to make sure it is done in the best manner.”

The candidates agreed on the value of the fare-free Island trolley and the need to find long-term funding sources for the service.

They also supported the creation of a water-taxi service to Anna Maria Island, provided the venture involves private enterprise.

McClash suggested a service similar to what existed years ago, when boats brought visitors to the Island from St. Petersburg. “I’d like to keep that vision alive,” he said.

In regards to the replacement of the Anna Maria Island Bridge, von Hahmann and Witham stressed the value of community input.

“I would support what the community wanted,” von Hahmann said.

“Community input would be paramount,” Witham said. “But I do think a fixed bridge is probably the best option.”

McClash said the Anna Maria Island Bridge at Manatee Avenue seems to “be a good fit…for a fixed span.”

He added, “I believe a 65-foot bridge could be done in a manner consistent with the Island character and community.… It doesn’t have to look like the Ringling Bridge” in Sarasota.

With District 7 spanning all of Manatee County, McClash and Witham were invited to tell Islanders something about Myakka, which is in the far eastern part of the county.

Witham pointed out that Myakka keeps its farming roots. McClash pointed out that like the Island, Myakka is its own unique community trying to preserve a way of life.

Without hesitation, the candidates said they currently oppose paid parking for county-operated Coquina Beach.

Responses to a question on beach renourishment in the city of Anna Maria were more complicated.

McClash said, “There is not enough money to do that part of the Island.”

Additionally, he said, nature may renourish the beach in Anna Maria: “Watch the sand. I think the beach is going to be pretty well restored” by nature.

Von Hahmann said that renourishment, a 50-year partnership with the federal government, is “facing bigger challenges” due to funding constraints.

She added that it “is very sad” Anna Maria opted out of previous renourishment efforts, making the city’s involvement in the next round problematic.

Witham declined to answer the question, saying he needed additional information.

Toward the conclusion of the forum, the candidates were invited to say what gives them the edge on election day.

“I think the greatest difference is really knowledge,” McClash said.

“I come from a different environment and I will bring my own ideas to county government,” Witham said.

“I showed up,” von Hahmann said, reiterating Chappie’s absence. “I have a sign in my office.… It says government is run by those who show up. I have always been a shower-upper.”

Arends, thanking the candidates for their attendance, concluded the forum, urging voters to show up Aug. 26 - at the polls, open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.