Meet the Candidates: Gainesville Mayor

Editor’s Note
This is the second in a series of stories Mainstreet Daily News is running to provide you more information about the candidates who have qualified for the upcoming elections.

Check out our previous story on the four Alachua County School Board races.

With current Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe term-limited, nine people have thrown their hat in the ring to replace him.

Although the seat will be filled with someone new, several of those running will be familiar to city residents. Two current commissioners, David Arreola and Harvey Ward, and one former commissioner-mayor, Gary Gordon, are among the nine. Former GRU manager Ed Bielarski followed through on a promise he made on the night the commission fired him without cause and joined the field.

Two people who have run for city office before but not been successful have put themselves forward again as candidates. Donald Shepherd, a retiree, and Gabriel Hillel, who describes his occupation as whistleblower, are part of the crowded field. 

Hillel last ran, as Gabe Kaimowitz, in the fall for at-large seat now occupied by Cynthia Chestnut, and Shepherd was last on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in 2016.

Newcomers include July Thomas, a community activist, and Adam Rosenthal, a customer service and technical support worker, along with Ansaun Fisher, the owner of a basketball team.

Courtesy of David Arreola David Arreola

Candidate: David Arreola

Age: 31

Occupation: City Commissioner and solar array technician 

Previous experience in elected office: 2017-Present Gainesville City Commissioner

Public service other than elected office: Family Promise of Gainesville, Florida – board of directors; Alachua County Young Democrats – member; Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida – member

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for mayor? I love the work we are doing in Gainesville, but we aren’t finished yet. I was born and raised here. I was in charge as Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tempore during the years of the pandemic. Privately, I have worked for only local businesses and am the only candidate working two jobs. My passion and wealth of experience  in Gainesville is real and I want to continue to serve and create one better Gainesville. 

What are the two most important issues facing the City Commission? The affordable housing crisis and the rising cost of living. I want to legalize more and smaller housing throughout Gainesville. We also need more and better jobs for the growing population with a Gainesville Economic Development Strategy for 2020-230. 

What do you hope to accomplish as mayor? I want to readapt Gainesville’s government to be closer to the people. I hope to make affordable housing abundantly for all. Our population boom is bringing on average over a thousand new people a year to Gainesville and many of them are choosing to stay. It’s a renaissance era for our town and we need to stabilize housing prices and build it abundantly. We are also pioneering climate change mitigation and resilience policy in Gainesville. We must remember every day we waste the younger generations are in peril. Ultimately, I strive to be a good, fair, Mayor surrounded by good-willed people working hard every day to make Gainesville better for all.

Ed Bielarski

Candidate: Edward Bielarski Jr

Age: 65

Occupation: Retired GRU General Manager

Public service other than elected office: Over a decade of experience as an officer for municipal utilities.

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for mayor? On September 13th, 2021, the commission had placed the termination of my employment as the last item on the agenda of a special Monday night commission meeting. Between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. on a weekday, over 200 residents called in and/or arrived at city hall to ask the commission not to terminate me. Faced with such overwhelming support, the commission was forced to reconsider and retain me. It was my “Wonderful Life” moment that gave me the courage and resolve to face my next hurdle. On January 27th, 2022, the commission brought up my termination once more, this time without any public notice. No one from the community was aware of the event, so the commission breezed through and voted to terminate me. Before taking their vote, I stood at the lectern and vowed that I would run for mayor. 

What are the two most important issues facing the City Commission? After rescuing the city from the punitive Biomass contract through an historic buyout that saved the city almost $1 billion, the commission has been using GRU as a piggy bank transferring money out of the utility in excess of its earnings. I will work to end that unsustainable practice. I will also work to end the commission’s war on single family zoning and the pernicious destruction of the city’s identity.

What do you hope to accomplish as mayor? I want to restore financial well-being and stability to the city after two decades of ill-advised contracts, policy over-reach, and failure to listen to residents. I want to stop the malarkey.

Gary Gordon

Candidate: Gary Gordon

Age: 69

Occupation: Retired

Previous experience in elected office: Gainesville City Commission 1983-86. Mayor-Commissioner ’85-‘86

Public service other than elected office:  Prior to my election in ’83 I created and served on the Hazardous Material Advisory Committee and the Commission’s Ad Hoc Water Management Advisory Committee (co-chair).  I created an ad hoc citizen committee: Citizens for Thorough Review of the Utility Budget.  During the time I lived in California, I was the executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association for 19 years. 

What prompted you to run for mayor? I couldn’t support any of the leading contenders.  Two of them have been working to destroy single-family neighborhoods and promote gentrification, the other has no record of defending neighborhoods or dealing with the array of city issues.

What are the two most important issues facing the City Commission? The use of the land (land use, planning, zoning and related utility and transportation decisions all of which impact quality of life and climate change) and the financial organization of the city: the general fund and the utilities.  Right now the majority of the City Commission is planning multi-rental-unit intrusions into single-family neighborhoods as well as increased density without concern for infrastructure or the character of life already existing in Gainesville.  Meanwhile, the general fund budget records are a mess (re the external auditor’s report) and the utility budget is an even greater mess.  All of this must be sorted out in favor of the current taxpayers and ratepayers, not in favor of developers, investors and alleged future residents.

What do you hope to accomplish as mayor? I want to restore the collegial democracy that used to exist; some of this is a matter of restructuring government by eliminating the direct election of the Mayor, exploring a return to a 5-member Commission, returning the GRU director as a management position under the City Manager, exploring eliminating the clock timing citizen speakers at meetings and increasing actual dialogue at Commission meetings. [Other goals include] restoring citizen advisory committees, eliminating the so-called policy meeting and other meetings held in the basement and, as long as there are districts, ensuring that those elected from a district report monthly on activities in their district and what they’ve done to help out—in other words, accountability for the district system.  Within the area of land use, I want to end the era of form-based zoning and transect zoning.

Gabriel Hillel

Candidate: Gabriel Hillel

Age: 87

Occupation: Whistleblower

What prompted you to run for mayor? I hold [Harvey Ward] personally responsible for the recission of [Gainesville’s] Butterfly City designation, because Mayor Poe and Helen Warren previously had supported the concept.

What are the two most important issues facing the Gainesville City Commission?  The single most important issue is restoration of Gainesville as a strong manager/charter officer form of government. Gainesville’s charter since 1927 includes a provision which bars elected officials from interfering with the operation of charter officers, unless there is a basis for termination.  However, in the last decade, there have been four permanent and interim city managers; five permanent and interim [equity and inclusion] officers and an unconstitutional change of designation of the office; four city auditors; three utility managers; and the deliberate appointment of an unqualified city clerk, who was chosen over the well-qualified former communications director Bob Woods.  The other issue concerns the city’s indifference to compliance with state law and constitution to assure meaningful access to public records.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Gainesville City Commission?  The City will be restored to a strong city manager/charter officer controlled system, and the public will have access to public records.  I myself will make numerous requests to see that the latter is done.  

Adam Rosenthal

Candidate: Adam Rosenthal

Age: 37

Occupation: Technical Support/Customer Service

What prompted you to run for mayor? I’ve always wanted to be a public servant and work towards making the world around me a better place for everyone. After becoming homeless, it opened my eyes to the fragility of what we take for granted on a day to day basis, and how the root cause of the issues we face as a community are not being addressed. When I received an email from the city about the qualifying period, I knew it was time to step up from the sidelines.

What are the two most important issues facing the Gainesville City Commission? I feel the two most important issues the Commission will face are setting up a framework to mitigate socioeconomic inequality and how to bring back integrity to our voting process.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Gainesville City Commission? If elected, I want to bring back confidence to the people of Gainesville that they are being heard and that together, we can lift this city up.

Donald Shepherd

Candidate: Donald E. Shepherd Sr.

Age: 68

Occupation: Retired. 

What prompted you to run for mayor? Seeing how the Gainesville government ignores the people’s needs; not listening to the people.  High electric bills, taxes, and not enough good paying jobs.

What are the two most important issues facing the Gainesville City Commission? The city finances are in chaos – straightening out finances, high electric bills, taxes.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Gainesville City Commission? Hope to rebuild Gainesville for the people making Gainesville a safer, more stable, a good place to live.

July Thomas

Candidate: July Thomas

Age: 31

Occupation: Barback

Public service other than elected office: Queer community elder and transgender activist

Candidate media: Facebook

What prompted you to run for mayor? I kept waiting for someone I could vote for to announce. When none did, and the people I was asking to run started asking me to instead, I decided it was my duty to step up for the sake of my community.

What are the two most important issues facing the City Commission? (1) Management. (2) Consultants.

(1) We have a lot of talented motivated people employed full-time within city hall who are hamstrung by largely absent and aloof commissioners who shovel work onto employees with already-full plates then block them on the projects they actually want to work on. At the same time, there are people in the community with time that they would love to donate to the city to help on those projects, but we don’t have electeds capable of tying those two groups together. 

(2) I categorize consultants in two groups. The first is the out-of-town consultant. They are professional groups who go city to city giving identical powerpoint presentations with little more than the city name on the front changed. We don’t need them. They offer no value. The second group is the in-town consultants. These in-town consultants must choose whether they want to advocate for developers or participate within the government. They cannot reasonably do both without a massive conflict of interest.

What do you hope to accomplish as mayor? I’m not going to change the world, but I will be able to gently steer the ship in a different direction. Gainesville is not a college town, it is a city with a college in it. And a city has other things that make it great: nature, parks, trees, beautiful and brilliant people, art, music, historic architecture. This is the Gainesville that is being ravaged by the current administration but it’s the one I want the world to know about.

Harvey Ward

Candidate: Harvey Ward, Jr.

Age: 54

Occupation: I’ve been a career fundraiser and non-profit administrator

Previous experience in elected office: Gainesville City Commissioner, District 2, 2017-Present

Public service other than elected office: Joint City/County Empowerment Center (GRACE Marketplace) Advisory Board; decades of volunteer board service including ElderCare of Alachua County, Early Learning Coalition, Hippodrome Theatre and many others.

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for mayor? I’ve lived, worked and learned here in Gainesville all my life and my wife and I are raising our three children here. I’ve worked in the non-profit community both professionally and as a volunteer for decades and have served two terms on the city commission, all of which gives me a broad and current understanding of the many challenges and opportunities we face together as neighbors. I’ve seen directly how public leaders can change and save lives in our community, and I’ve seen how a gap in leadership can leave people behind. I feel tremendous responsibility and passion to provide the kind of positive and committed leadership that connects people with each other and with the services local government should provide to make their lives better.

What are the two most important issues facing the City Commission? This is always a difficult question because I’ve never been a one-or-two-issue candidate. Gainesville is growing and changing, as cities and people do, and that brings dozens of issues both positive and negative. If pressed for just two I would say that at this moment in time our greatest needs are for responsible, experienced leadership and a focus on stable and affordable housing.

What do you hope to accomplish as mayor? I want this to be a city where we connect to each other and to the world around us, where we commit to safe streets and clean, reliable energy and where we work together to create peace of mind for every person and every working family who calls Gainesville home.

Candidate: Ansaun Fisher

Candidate media: Instagram: @fishersansaun

Fisher did not respond to the Mainstreet Daily News questionnaire.

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