After six months of campaigning Gainesville mayor, Ed Bielarski and Commissioner Harvey Ward will continue for 11 more weeks as the two men sprint to a runoff election on Nov. 8.
Both candidates filed for the race the same week, and both said they’ll continue their strategies of striding the streets to knock on doors and talk to residents now that they’re in a head-to-head matchup.
However, the two candidates sport a number of differences as well.
“Folks that voted for other [candidates] will see that they have, I think, a kind of a black or white choice between myself and Harvey,” Bielarski said in a Thursday phone interview, underscoring the difference between the term-limited commissioner and the former utility manager.
Residents handed Ward 28% of the vote during Tuesday’s primaries, topping Bielarski by 317 votes. Commissioner David Arreola finished third with 15%, and Gary Gordon came just a step behind with 14%, followed by five other candidates.
Arreola offered Ward his full endorsement on Wednesday, potentially adding a chunk of voters to his lead. In a Thursday phone interview, Ward said he had tremendous respect for Arreola, saying as commissioners you work together for the sake of the city.
“We are going to continue to run a positive race and talk about what we can achieve as a community,” Ward said.
He said that means pointing to his record as a commissioner over the past six years and looking to projects to tackle as mayor.
Looking back, Ward said he’s proud of housing projects like My Gainesville Neighborhood and the Heir’s Grant program. Ward also pushed for transit initiatives like free bus rides for those under 18 years old or over 65 years old.
“There’s not a solution to housing. There’s lots of pieces and parts to it,” Ward said. “And I’ve really enjoyed being able to find some of those pieces and parts and put them to work in ways that change families’ lives for the better and strengthen neighborhoods.”
In a Facebook post, Ward listed off 15 items he’d like to accomplish.
Several on the list also hit on east Gainesville initiatives like renovating the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Building/Citizens Field area, draw a bank or credit union to the east side of Waldo Road, build out the UF medical center and RTS transfer station on Hawthorne Road and renovate the Boulware Springs complex.
Residents continue to call on the city commission to alleviate high Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) bills—which are the second highest rates in the state.
“For me, this is frustrating, because GRU is a citizen-owned utility, meaning we the people are the owners of GRU,” local activist Chanae Jackson said at a rally on Thursday. “How is it that they have policies that are directly detrimental to the livelihood and the lives of people?”
Jackson joined a coalition including Indivisible Gainesville, Florida Forward and Young Democrats of Alachua County rallied outside GRU headquarters to protest the current system—rates, deposits and policies. The group plans to hold a teach-in on Sept. 17 with two goals: help community members learn how to mitigate bills and outline steps that activists want GRU to take.
“I would love for there to be something that we can do that would lower our bills instantly—that would make me extremely popular,” Ward said. “I would love to do that.”
But Ward said the global nature of the situation has impacted all cities and utilities. He said common sense shows that, as a candidate running for office, he’d seize on an opportunity to immediately assist with GRU bills.
If residents hand Ward the gavel, he’d like to assist individuals save money through programs that swap inefficient window units and natural gas appliances.
“But right now, the best thing we can do is find ways to help people conserve and look at programs that will help people in the long run,” Ward said.
Bielarski disagrees. In a phone interview, he said the city commission placed residents in the current GRU position through mismanagement. And he said the commission could help lower rates.
He points to GRU’s rate stabilization fund as one answer, saying the commission could draw from the millions of dollars reserved for a rainy day. The commission also voted to use $8 million in federal funds toward affordable housing. Bielarski said the commission could use that to assist those struggling.
Bielarski served as general manager of GRU from 2015 to January 2022, when the commission fired him at Ward’s urging. Bielarski immediately vowed to run for mayor.
Bielarski describes himself as a “facts guy” and lacks prior experience in office. Bringing fiscal responsibility to the commission forms the core of his campaign, especially concerning GRU. The city commission, he said, has grown beyond the citizens’ needs, spending beyond capacity and taking from GRU to fund the budget.
As general manager, Bielarski said he tried to guide the commission against fund transfers from GRU. Drawing from GRU like a “piggy bank” has forced higher rates, he said.
“They ignored it in spite of me writing white paper upon white paper and communicating in private meetings with them,” Bielarski said. “So, they chose to ignore it, and they’re sitting with the consequences of it now.”
With full use of its funds and commission support, Bielarski said GRU could even reduce the impact of fuel adjustment charges. With natural gas prices tripling in the past year, GRU has passed those increases to consumers.
Bielarski said GRU should work to upgrade its 40-year-old natural gas plants. Like a car that gets 10 miles per gallon (MPG) versus one with 40 MPG, upgraded plants would reduce the carry-through fuel adjustment cost.
But Bielarski said the commission wanted no part in additional or upgraded natural gas facilities.
The commission needs to return to its job, Bielarski said, providing clean drinking water, fixing potholes, picking up the trash and making it all affordable.
“They don’t wait until something becomes commercially ready,” Bielarski said. “They don’t wait until things are not on the cutting edge. They put the citizens and the residents at risk by experimenting with things. That’s not what a municipal government is about.”
Bielarski said his proven leadership skills can help unite the city. Over the past 14 months, the city has seen high turnover of its charter positions, from Bielarski himself, to the city manager, city attorney and city equity and inclusion officer.
Since arriving at GRU, Bielarski said he united the staff and realized the effect when the city commission tried to fire him the first time, in September 2021. Public comment lasted two hours as GRU employees and community members spoke on Bielarski’s behalf.
“In that moment, I realized that I had affected people in a very authentic, basic level. And so that stuck with me,” Bielarski said.
Bielarski highlighted the rezoning ordinance currently under state review as an example of the city balancing of the cutting edge.
Ward and Bielarski agree on the rezoning issue, and both have promised to repeal the ordinances if they pass. Ward said the process could be messier than some think.
“So when we work to unwind it in January, if we need to get there, it’s a lot more complicated than just changing one vote,” Ward said. “There’s a lot of work that’s going to have to go into it. Now I’m committed to that work.
The zoning ordinances will likely return before the November runoff between Ward and Bielarski. Until then, both aim to wear new holes in their shoes and earn another 25% of the vote.