Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said he is excited for what’s next in his career but told an audience Monday at Santa Fe College that he’s not planning on running for another office.
“I know that I will continue to do purpose-driven work. I only know how to serve my community. That’s all I have ever done professionally,” said Poe, who was a middle-school teacher then a college professor before winning a Gainesville City Commission seat in 2008.
While he’s not exactly certain what’s next, “…I am thinking something that might not involve public comment every day,” he said with a chuckle.
Poe, the city’s mayor since 2016, was the first interviewee in a series of conversations with Florida newsmakers hosted on the Santa Fe College campus.
The Mainstreet Daily News Newsmaker Interview Series was developed as a way to go beyond the soundbites and introduce the people in the headlines in a relaxed and friendly setting, said J.C. Derrick, Mainstreet’s publisher and the series’ main interviewer.
“It was a great night,” Derrick said after the event. “We are thrilled to launch this series and grateful to both Mayor Poe and Santa Fe College for helping make it happen.”
Mainstreet announced at the event that it would begin publishing a weekly print newspaper this summer and distributed copies of a printed prototype. The paper will be an addition to hyperlocal news organization’s daily digital news website and email newsletters.
Santa Fe College provided the Lyceum Concert Hall for the event and Dr. Paul Broadie, the college president, introduced the series.
“I want to thank you for thinking about Santa Fe [for the series],” Broadie said. “Because what you’re doing ties right into what we do as an institution, which is to inform and help people grow, learn, and develop. And that’s what news does, it helps inform, it helps people grow, learn, and develop.”
The next Newsmaker Interview Series event on April 14 will feature Florida Supreme Court Justice Jamie Grosshans. She is the fifth woman ever to serve as a Supreme Court justice and is currently the only woman seated on the court.
The event will mark Grosshans’ first news media interview since her appointment. Tickets to the event are free and will become available later in March.
The inaugural interview with Poe was wide ranging, covering Poe’s early influences and leadership philosophy and touched on several current issues facing the city from the status of its sister city agreement with Novorossiysk, Russia, to the condition of its roads.
Poe also reflected on advice he might give to the four people that voters will select in the upcoming fall city election. Because the existing commissioners in District 2, 3 and 4 are term-limited, at least three of newly elected officials will have never served on the City Commission.
Below are excerpts from Monday’s interview with Poe:
Early family influences
Both of Poe’s parents were educators – his father was a band director at UF and several local middle and high schools and his mother was an elementary school music teacher.
“I wanted to do something that was going to hopefully leave my world a little bit better than the way I found it,” Poe said. “And I knew that education was one way I could do that, and it was a good fit.”
In addition to his parents, Poe said he was influenced by his younger brother.
“[He is] an incredible, incredibly ethical individual, and from a very early age, was very committed to standing up for what was right, and not willing to let things go that he just did not think were OK,” Poe said. “He really drove me to do the same.”
Poe said his goal as a leader is to be authentic and to be transparent about his views.
“I, first of all, have to be true to myself and be very honest and open about what I believe and why I believe it,” Poe said. “And that doesn’t mean I’m right. And it doesn’t mean that anybody that disagrees with me is wrong.”
Poe said, in fact, that some of his favorite elected officials to serve on the commission were ones he didn’t always agree with.
“For me, as what I would call a principled progressive, I loved serving with principled conservatives because we would hold each other accountable,” Poe said. “And we would sort of force each other to do better and to be better.”
Current issues facing the city
In addition to the local implications of the war in Ukraine, Derrick also talked to Poe about roads in Gainesville—which Derrick says draws the most Mainstreet reader comments of any local issue, even on stories “that have nothing to do with roads.”
Poe said many of the complaints are roads in the city that are maintained by either the county or the state, which are roads that Gainesville has no control over. The budget for city-owned roads is $1.2 million and Gainesville has been able to keep pace with repairs, he said.
However, the county especially has struggled to make repairs, Poe said, because the state built a lot of roads about 50 years ago and then gave them to the county to maintain without funding for maintenance.
“So when you think about the worst roads in Alachua County, those all used to be state roads, and then the county was given them—and without any funding source—to keep them maintained,” Poe said.
Poe noted the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners is planning to put a local one cent infrastructure surtax on the ballot. The additional tax money could help the county update the condition of the roads.
“They’re going to put most of their money, if it passes, towards road repairs,” Poe said. Because the city is able to keep up with the maintenance of the roads it controls, its portion of the sales tax would go for other infrastructure needs such as updating aging fire stations.
“I think what we have to do as local government is be very transparent, and specific, about what that money will be used for, if it’s approved,” Poe said.
Advice to new commissioners
Because serving commissioners in Districts 2, 3 and 4 are term-limited, Gainesville will see three people join the City Commission for the first time after the fall election.
Poe said he was “absolutely overwhelmed” during his first term as city commissioner and said he had learned some things about public service over the years that he would offer as advice to the new members.
“First of all, you have to really give yourself over to the job and that’s tough because we have families, we have careers,” Poe said. “[Being a commissioner or mayor] is considered a part time job, which I finally learned that it wasn’t.”
Poe taught for 19 years at Santa Fe College but stepped down last year.
“I literally could not keep doing both and maintain my health and be a good father and a good husband,” Poe said. “The job takes a tremendous amount of time and a huge emotional toll. You’ve got to be ready for that.”
He said trusting and relying on other commissioners was a key to successfully navigate all the issues that compete for an elected official’s attention.
“You can’t do everything,” Poe said. “You have to focus on the things that are most important to you, and trust your colleagues to pick up other things and work as a team.”
New commissioners having patience with their own learning curves as well as patience with the pace of change in local government also would help them with the public service work, he said.
“Governments don’t do things quickly,” Poe said. “You’ve got to be patient, and if it’s worth doing, and you care about it, and it’s important to the community, you can work in a very deliberate and intentional way to do that.”
Poe also discussed the recent turnover at City Hall and said he believes it was necessary and that he will leave office with a much stronger team in place.
While he said he’s keeping an open mind about his next career step, Poe said he’s staying focused on finishing well.
“The people voted and put me in office to work the whole time, and not check out at the end, and so I’m going to keep my shoulder down and keep pushing the boulder up the hill,” Poe said. “I’m excited about what the next chapter might be.”
He said there are things he would like to accomplish during the last months of his term, but that he has to be careful not to rush them through.
“For me, it’s finding the right alchemy between determination and patience,” Poe said. “Especially with a very short period of time left, there’s big things that I want to see accomplished. But if you push too hard, and folks are not there already, then it’s just never going to happen.”