Forum features candidates on August ballot

Editor’s Note
Mainstreet Daily News ran a series about the candidates who have qualified for the upcoming elections. Check out our previous stories on the Alachua County School Board, the Gainesville mayor, the Gainesville commission, the Alachua County commission and the Florida Legislature races.

Candidates for several local offices made arguments for their candidacies at a major forum Sunday afternoon.

The Alachua County chapter of the League of Women Voters in conjunction with UF’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service hosted the Zoom-based event, which was attended by 350 people.

“An open forum such as this is the essence of democracy and the freedoms that we enjoy in the Republic,” said Diana Boxer, the co-chair of voter services for the league, in introducing the forum.

Candidates in five local races who will be on the August 23 ballot answered a series of four questions chosen by the league. League officers also moderated the discussion in which candidates took turns and had one minute to answer each question.

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The league did not fact check claims made as part of the forum, and candidates did not directly address each other or rebut each other’s arguments, which is standard for League of Women Voters virtual forums, Boxer said.

The forum focused mostly on non-partisan races that will appear on the August ballot – the four races for Alachua County School, the three races for Gainesville City Commission, and the Gainesville mayoral race. However, the event also featured the two District 2 Alachua County commission (BOCC) candidates, who will be on the August Democratic primary ballot.

The league additionally included an introduction to the candidates for the open seat on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Because they are running for a judgeship, under state rules the four candidates cannot comment on issues that might come before them as judges, so they were limited to making introductions about their background, experience and motivation for running.

The league recorded the virtual forum and the Graham Center posted the recordings on YouTube.

A similar candidate forum is planned for the races on the November ballot and is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Gainesville mayor

Current Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe is term-limited, but a host of people have signed up to replace him. With nine candidates for mayor qualifying for the August elections, the field is larger than the last two mayoral elections combined. 

The mayoral candidates were asked to identify top initiatives to “move Gainesville forward,” to address healthcare inequalities, to improve communication, and to balance new residents with the preservation of neighborhoods and green spaces.

How to handle development, including creating more affordable housing, was a point of contention, starting in the opening introductions.

The city’s consideration of potential changes the city’s zoning that would allow duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes in areas where only single-family zoning is currently allowed was a particular to several candidates.

Ed Bielarski, the former Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) general manager, said as part of his opening statement that he was “committed to ending the commission’s war on single-family zoning and the worship at the altar of density at all costs.”

“The actual long-range city plan includes the elimination of single-family home zoning, to neighborhood zoning, which by right allows people, not by exception, but by right, to put additional occupants on that property,” Bierlarski said. “You’re eliminating the canopy. You’re eliminating the very nature of neighborhoods.”

Bielarski later said making Gainesville affordable starts with lowering utility bills.

In his opening statement candidate Gary Gordon, a former city commissioner who spent almost 20 years away from the city, said, “When I returned to my hometown, I thought, ’What have they done?’ But it’s not just what they’ve done, it’s what they’re continuing to do to destroy the character of Gainesville.” 

He said later that the city commission needed to stop focusing on trying to deal with a potential influx of new residents, but other candidates disagreed.

“Folks will be coming here whether we have a plan or not,” said Harvey Ward, who represents District 2 on the city commission. “It’s important that we do have a plan, and that we be sensitive to not only the needs of the folks who are going to be moving here but to the people who live here right now.” 

David Arreola, who currently represents District 3 on the city commission, said that passing inclusionary zoning rules that would make developments include 10% to 20% affordable units was “the most important thing we can do in Gainesville right now.” He also challenged other candidates’ descriptions of the proposed changes.

“We’re not talking about eliminating single-family housing,” Arreola said. “What we are talking about is allowing for more small-scale multifamily housing [like] you see in Gainesville’s oldest and most traditional neighborhoods.”

Adam Rosenthal, who works in customer service and technical support, moved to Gainesville 10 years ago but experienced homelessness in 2018. He said that the amount of single-family homes in the city was a barrier in getting housing while he was homeless but he also said additional affordable housing may not be the sole solution to the problem.

“Affordable housing is important, but being able to lower the cost of housing isn’t always going to be the best long-term solution,” Rosenthal said. ”Being able to give those people more options to be able to make money in order to live in housing is going to be far more valuable for the city, so we can raise the city up.” 

July Thomas, who is a community activist and currently works in Gainesville’s service industry, said she was concerned about how current development in the city is managed.

“We have city blocks that are vacant,” Thomas said. “The reason why they’re vacant is because when investors buy property, even if it is a building that still has life in it, they will tear it down because it actually increases the speculation value because they’re saving whoever buys property from them the cost of demolition. So at the end of the day, what this is really about is speculation in our land, our real estate and our housing.”

Gainesville commission 

The forum hit on several topics for the nine Gainesville commissioners, from housing to healthcare. One common response from candidates involved reaching out to the community.

“The members of the Black community will tell us what they need, and then we have to do what they tell us to do,” Michael Raburn, candidate for District 3, said in response to a question about healthcare inequalities. 

Candidates James Ingle and Bryan Eastman both supported expanding current paramedic services that provide health services in neighborhoods instead of requiring residents to travel.

Ed Book also suggested making the health department more mobile in order to reach neighbors in need. He and several others pointed to a holistic approach to healthcare inequalities by partnering with the school district in training children and creating more high-paying job opportunities. 

Two separate questions brought focus on GRU: one concerning the city’s pledge to become 100% renewable by 2045 and the other about affordable housing. 

Candidates expressed support for increasing solar arrays and already starting to find appropriate land. Several pointed to increasing energy efficiency programs. 

Christian Newman said the city needs to prepare infrastructure for the changes coming like electrification, needing electric vehicle (EV) charging stations throughout the city, and battery storage. 

Keeping GRU rates low will also help people afford housing. Several candidates said GRU can’t continue transferring money to the general government side of the city. 

“I believe in budget accountability,” Book said. “That means no increases in fees and no utility transfer increases.”

Candidate Jo Lee Beaty also said GRU cannot be the city’s piggy bank. 

Eastman, Newman and Raburn all said Gainesville needs to invest more of its own dollars into affordable housing instead of relying on state or federal funds. Candidate James Ingle added the city needs to require new developments to include affordable housing. 

“It’s a tool we’re not using, and I think can be used very much to move things in the right direction,” Ingle said. 

Alachua County School Board

With four seats in the air, the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) could look brand new in 2023. Candidates at the forum responded to questions about student behavior and magnet programs. The search for a new superintendent and Florida’s change in its end-of-year assessment drew differing responses from candidates. 

For Mildred Russell, the superintendent needs to create a unified team and leave politics and emotions out of the equation. 

Candidate Sarah Rockwell pointed to the district’s achievement gap, saying the ideal superintendent must be able to address it. 

“Our district has the largest achievement gap in the state,” Rockwell said. “We need to close that and we need leadership who has experience in doing that.”

Other candidates pointed to a data-driven approach with strong interpersonal skills. Prescott Cowles said the superintendent must listen to the community and take action based on them. 

For Ray Holt, the new superintendent needs to bring the district together. 

“More importantly, I think we need someone who has a consistent vision, who will bring consistency across the whole district,” he said. “Consistency, not only in discipline. . .but also in curriculum standards.” 

When asked if they supported Florida’s change to the end-of-year Florida Standardized Assessment, candidates lined up on both sides. 

Holt, Fisher and Russell showed support while Prescott and Rockwell opposed the change. 

Incumbent Tina Certain said her initial enthusiasm about the change had since been curbed. She said Florida needs an assessment but the change right now will drain resources and the new assessment keeps the high-stakes nature of the current test. 

Alachua County commission

Because the District 2 race is the only BOCC race that will be on the primary ballot in August, only Charlie Jackson and his opponent Marihelen Wheeler, the incumbent commissioner for District 2, participated in Sunday’s event. 

The BOCC candidates were asked questions about a proposal to create a Springs County from a portion of Alachua County, a ballot initiative to change Alachua County from at-large districts to single-member districts, efforts to create a countywide solar program and their approaches to supporting economic development in the county.

Both candidates agreed that they wanted to stick with the current at-large district system and that they supported increased solar energy efforts. In terms of economic development, the two took slightly different tacks.

Wheeler, who is a former teacher, focused on job training as a potential way to improve economic opportunities in the county.

“That job training is a big issue, particularly for a lot of our young people that did not take the academic track in our community,” Wheeler said. “And right now we have the opportunity to get people into jobs, even if they don’t have a high school diploma.”

Jackson said the county needs a long-term strategic plan focused on development in order to improve the economic outlook.

“One item that I’m going to be looking for is a revitalized quality of life for all citizens by seeking out near and long-term opportunities to provide a change,” Jackson said.

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