Local candidates exchanged comments at an election forum on Sunday hosted by the League of Women Voters Alachua County and UF’s Bob Graham Center. The event, postponed because of Hurricane Ian, featured Gainesville races, Alachua County commission races, an 8th Judicial Court race and two state posts.
Alachua County voters hit the polls in August for the primaries and will return on Nov. 8 for the final vote in the majority of those races.
At Sunday’s forum, the moderators divided the candidates and asked identical questions to opponents, allowing 90 seconds to respond along with a minute-long introduction and conclusion.
The following are excerpts from the forum; the entire event can be viewed online.
8th Judicial Circuit
Sean Brewer and AuBroncee Martin remain of the four candidates in August’s primary.
Both candidates said judges have a responsibility to improve public understanding of the courts in response to a forum question.
Martin said a judge’s role restricts them from doing many things, and while a judge doesn’t bow to the will of the majority, they can educate on their decisions.
“We should be transparent and explain why we made such a decision,” Martin said.
Brewer agreed and said the entire campaign for the position has been a majority of education, informing voters of the judgeship process and answering questions about it.
During the forum, the candidates pointed to their backgrounds as valuable assets to the bench.
Matin said there are few judges with his background on the court.
“It is important that all ideas are represented focusing on the law, but all perspectives all backgrounds are represented,” Martin said.
Martin has served as a public defender for 24 years. Brewer has served as a prosecutor for more than 24 years. He said many judges have a background as prosecutors because of the experience they gain.
“That is because our job as a prosecutor is not to represent one client. It’s to seek justice,” Brewer said. “That’s very similar to what the job is for a judge.”
Both candidates hit on the same challenge to the court system—a lack of public faith.
Brewer said the courts can combat doubt by inviting the public into its process, giving people an unfiltered view of the judges, lawyers and prosecutors in action. And he noted that all proceedings are already open.
Brewer said fairness and impartiality are the most important aspects of the court system.
“In fact, the only promise I’ve made throughout this entire campaign is that if I’m elected Judge, I will be fair and impartial,” Brewer said.
Martin again noted his background, saying it’s important people see diversity in the courts to help bolster confidence.
“I’ve always said that it’s important for somebody from my background to be a part of the circuit bench because it is rare,” Martin said, speaking of career public defenders serving as judges.
Alachua County Board of County Commissioners
With three open positions, the five-member Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) could see a majority of new faces or a return to the same board that has mostly served since the last election.
Since June, Commissioner Raemi Eagle-Glenn has sat as a new commissioner after an appointment by Governor Ron DeSantis. Both Eagle-Glenn and Mary Alford, who was elected to the seat in 2020, are campaigning to keep the District 1 spot.
Two candidates for the District 4 seat, Van Elmore and Anthony Johnson, didn’t participate in the forum.
The first question thrown to the candidates dealt with the structure of the BOCC itself. A ballot initiative will present voters with the option to switch from the at-large nature of the current commission to single-member districts, where only voters from the candidate’s district can vote for that seat.
The candidates split on the issue.
Alford joined her former colleagues Marihelen Wheeler and Ken Cornell to oppose the initiative.
In her work with the Florida Association of Counties, Alford said she spoke with commissioners from both structures and some with hybrids. She said single-member districts lead to internal competition.
“The commissioners ended up fighting each other for resources, and money often won,” Alford said. “I did not see that single member districts solved any problems.”
Wheeler agreed and said issues are easier to understand on a county-wide basis. She said she enjoyed helping the entire county through serving as commissioner for District 2.
“It’s easier to understand the issues that are happening in each community and trying then to put these communities together so that they can help each other,” Wheeler said.
Cornell said the ballot initiative, which will be decided by all county voters, is Tallahassee trying to tell Alachua County what to do. He said even supporters of putting the initiative on the ballot don’t believe in single-member districts.
State Sen. Keith Perry and state Rep. Chuck Clemons both represent other counties with at-large commission structures, according to Cornell.
Eagle-Glenn and Ed Braddy, running against Wheeler, supported single-member districts, saying the system would break up Gainesville’s hold on the BOCC.
“Right now, we have a very lopsided representation in our county because of the densely populated Gainesville city center,” Eagle-Glenn said. “The voters within the Gainesville city center are essentially deciding how the entire county is going to be run.”
Braddy said the at-large, one-size-fits-all system isn’t working because rural municipalities feel ignored or bullied. He said Gainesville elects commissioners through a single-member district, and the city commissioners can cross borders to help other districts.
Single-member candidates won’t be too busy with their district to look around at other parts of the county, Braddy said.
“Not a single [Gainesville] commission candidate is advocating abolishing city districts so that they can better represent the whole,” Braddy said.
Ed Bielarski and Harvey Ward escaped a crowded primary as the top two candidates, garnering 27% and 28% of the vote respectively.
The candidates addressed questions on a new city climate change officer and what qualities they bring to the mayoral position. The two spoke on supporting the local economy.
Bielarski said the area needs to leverage its resources to attract jobs that bring a livable wage, like manufacturing.
“I think a vibrant economy starts with jobs,” Bielarski said. “I think that we, as a community, have not done as much as we need to look for opportunities for businesses to come to the area.”
He said the city should continue its efforts with Santa Fe College to increase apprenticeship programs and partner with the school district to ensure students leave with the skill to attract jobs.
Ward said the community’s institutions—Alachua County, UF, Santa Fe College, Gainesville, the school district and the chamber of commerce—need to collaborate and ensure that they are meeting the needs of the companies in the area.
He said Gainesville does a good job of getting companies started locally but needs to make sure the infrastructure is in place for company growth.
“There’s so much more that we need to do,” Ward said. “I will tell you, though, that the big change has to be the University of Florida. They’ve got to begin paying everybody who works on this campus, whether they sweep the floors or whatever the job is, a living wage.”
Gainesville City Commission
Four candidates paired off for two Gainesville commission seats at Sunday’s forum.
James Ingle and Ed Book compete for District 2 while DeJeon Cain and Casey Willits compete for District 3. Bryan Eastman won the August election to earn the District 4 seat.
Looking four years down the road, each candidate spoke of what changes they’d like to see.
Ingle opened with a common topic in the forum—Gainesville Regional Utilities. He said the utility needs to return to serving the people.
“I’d like to see GRU back on track,” Ingle said. “It’s been a valuable part of this community for a long time. It’s a little off of where it needs to be right now.”
Ingle said the city should expand apprenticeship programs that he has benefited from, push for equality throughout the districts and increase public participation in local government.
Book focused on civility in the city, involving kindness, respect and compassion.
“That’s critical,” Book said. “Because when you work towards common goals, it doesn’t matter the many strategies you might [have] to get to those goals, but you work toward a common goal. You work together.”
Book said the city needs to tap into education so that citizens can afford any housing, not just affordable housing. GRU also needs to be kept in check with rates if possible and at least not impact those in poverty, Book said.
Willits locked onto GRU as well. He wants to see 50 megawatts of solar power in four years and RTS ridership back up to 8 million per year. He added that District 3 needs a new park, or at least the land for one, in the coming years.
“I want to see landlords fighting for tenants and having to drop their rent,” Willits said. “I also want to see a higher homeownership for the people who it makes sense for.”
Cain emphasized equality in all districts of Gainesville and change in the city commission. The city, he said, doesn’t need ideas forced upon it.
“I want the community to be involved,” Cain said. “We need to be involved, and we need to be listened to, and we need to be respected.”
He said UF needs to pay its fair share and GRU rates need to lower.