With Harvey Ward’s mayoral win, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said voters have validated the city commission and placed officials in a position to further the work.
“I was impressed by the margin of victory that Harvey had over Ed Bielarski,” Poe said in an interview. “I think that was a real statement win for the direction that the commission has been headed and looks like it will continue to head.”
Ward was first elected to the commission in 2017 and was reelected in 2020. He represented more of the establishment candidate, while Bielarski campaigned as an outsider trying to shake things up.
“We have a lot of work left to do, and I thought it was important for somebody with good experience and good ideas to run for mayor,” Ward said in an interview Tuesday night.
Ward, a graduate of Eastside High School, Santa Fe and UF, won 58% of the vote against Bielarski, the former general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities.
Poe, who has served as mayor since 2016 and is term-limited, said Ward will need to develop his own style of leadership, but he said the incoming mayor already has a deep understanding of the organization. He said Ward is entering an excellent situation with commissioners who have great ideas and life experiences.
The commission will include three new members, including incoming commissioners Ed Book and Casey Willits, who won their runoffs Tuesday with 51% and 54% of the vote, respectively. They will join Bryan Eastman, who won the District 4 seat in August, as fresh faces on the commission.
The three new commissioners will join current commissioners Reina Saco, Desmon Duncan-Walker and Cynthia Chestnut. Poe said the commissioners will need to sit down to create their collective list of priorities.
“Then, it’ll be mayor-elect Ward’s job to make sure they’re sticking to those priorities and following the path that they all agreed on,” Poe said. “That can be a little bit more difficult as you get into the sort of implementation of those plans.”
Poe said voters’ approval of a one-cent sales tax for the next 10 years will mean even more discussion of priorities and process. Half of the money raised will fund the Wild Spaces Public Places initiative, an established program that has funded park renovations and the acquisition of conservation land. But the other half, addressing infrastructure needs like roads, affordable housing and fire stations, will be a new source of funding for the city.
Gainesville will receive the second largest share of funds from the surtax, so Poe said the new city commission will need to strategize how it will use them.
“It’ll be a real opportunity but also challenge for the new commission to make sure that they are able to maximize the use of those funds,” Poe said. “There are some significant needs, especially on the infrastructure side.”
Last spring, when participating in Mainstreet’s Newsmaker Interview Series at Santa Fe College, Poe advised incoming commissioners to recognize the role as a full-time job: “The job takes a tremendous amount of time and a huge emotional toll. You’ve got to be ready for that.”
Poe cited a couple of important upcoming commission meetings before he will be ready to move on: “Then I’m in a really good place to hand the key to the office over to Harvey and wish him the best.”