MARATHON -- Three candidates vying next month for two at-large seats on the Marathon City Council faced off in their first debate last week.
Political newcomer Mark Senmartin spent the evening raising concerns about the city's direction and casting himself as an agent for change, while incumbent councilman Richard Keating and former councilman Pete Worthington shared a similar stay-the-course outlook that views the town as making progress.
Architect William P. Horn's letter to City Manager Roger Hernstadt last month airing his concerns about the city hall project's tight bidding schedule drew immediate distinctions between the candidates. Though the council ultimately voted to extend the bid deadline, Councilman Dick Ramsay was critical of city staff for not disclosing the letter earlier, and Councilman Chris Bull demanded a special meeting to discuss it.
"Communication between the city manager and council has been selective at best," Senmartin said, adding that Hernstadt, as the project's manager, must communicate openly with each council member.
Worthington and Keating both defended Hernstadt by passing the blame to council members.
"It's the City Council's responsibility to approach the city manager and ask what is going on here," Worthington countered. Each council member has the authority to introduce items on the meeting agenda for discussion, he noted.
Keating, who concurred, added later that the hiring of a professional manager was one of his most important accomplishments as a councilman.
A question about the town's controversial liquor store ordinance, which prohibits the siting of stores within 1,500 feet of each other, also served to set Senmartin apart. Unlike most liquor store ordinances, Marathon's law doesn't mandate their distance from nearby schools or churches.
Worthington took credit for the ordinance, which was adopted during one of his prior terms of office. He also downplayed the ordinance's uniqueness, noting that Las Vegas has a similar law.
"If you want a package liquor store on every corner, we can revisit the ordinance," he said.
Keating said the community could change the law if it desires, but he speculated there was little interest to do so.
"I've heard no complaints from people that they can't get liquor in Marathon," he quipped.
Senmartin, a jewelry store owner, said the free market, not the council, should decide the issue. He dismissed the law as "asinine."
"No one should be exempt from competition," he said, noting that no corresponding law exists for other businesses, such as the pawn shop that opened near his business.
Keating is a flats guide by profession and Worthington is a commercial fisherman.
Regarding code enforcement, Keating said the city doesn't want to punish people with citations, but that neglectful property owners, whether they be banks or individuals, need to bring their properties up to community standards.
Senmartin used the discussion to introduce a policy proposal.
"Code officers should have the authority to cite those who make frivilous complaints," he said. Senmartin also accused the city of selective enforcement of code but offered no examples.
Worthington said the city needs to apply the same codes across the board.
Asked about local contractors who complain that permitting takes too long, Worthington said having only two people to conduct required inspections for 4,500 sewer connection permits has been part of the problem.
Keating allowed that it might be time to hire more staff to deal with permit requests.
"We are starting to go through a period of growth," he said, referring to the awarding of dozens of hotel room allocations to developers.
Senmartin said the city has known large projects were in the pipeline and should have prepared better.
The candidates were also asked what changes, if any, are needed to address the city's $500,000 annual legal services bill.
Keating said he would stay with the current system, which involves contracting with attorney John Herin of the Fort Lauderdale office of GrayRobinson.
"An in-house attorney would be a big mistake," he said. He said a Marathon attorney would be subject to too much pressure from local interests and would ending up giving "prejudiced" opinions.
Senmartin, who suggested putting lawsuits out to bid, said legal costs will remain high as long as the attorney recommends which cases to pursue.
Worthington took exception to that comment.
"The council decides which lawsuits to pursue," he said. The current arrangement places up to 50 attorneys at the city's "beck and call" and for only $187 an hour, he added.
Two topics on which all the candidates found common ground were the desire to turn Sunset Park into a focal point of the community, something akin to a Mallory Square, and the need to earmark funding for beautification projects in the annual budget.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 5. Council members serve two-year terms. The top two vote-getters will be seated.