City candidates talk Koppers, budget

Candidates for Gainesville mayor attend a public forum Sunday.

Brad McClenny /Special to The Sun
Published: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:06 a.m.

Correction: Don Marsh said the city's previous plan to build a coal-fired plant would be cheaper and better for the environment. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the candidate making those remarks.

At a forum Sunday, candidates for the two City Commission seats up for election in two weeks focused on the city's roughly $7 million budget shortfall and the cleanup of the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site.

And, as they did at a forum Thursday, candidates took aim at current Commissioner Craig Lowe, who has touted his leadership in his run for the mayor's office.

"I don't have that kind of leadership, and I'm kind of glad I don't," mayoral candidate Ozzy Angulo said of Lowe.

With the forum hosted by the University Park Neighborhood Association, Lowe talked about the role he played in cracking down on "irresponsible landlords."

"I am the only candidate who has the will to move those pro-neighborhood protections through and keep them in place," he said.

Don Marsh countered that for the past three decades he has built up his window-cleaning business.

"I know something about having the will to do something," Marsh said. "I am used to serving the public. I am used to solving other people's problems."

As most of the others did, Marsh accused commissioners past and present of dragging their feet on cleaning up the site at Main Street and 23rd Avenue that has been declared a Superfund area, meaning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found hazardous waste in the soil or drinking water.

"Bureaucrats have been watching this thing for years," Marsh said.

Angulo said he visited the site a few weeks ago.

"I don't understand why this is still a debate," he said. "We already know the plan, and we just need to execute it."

In his attack, Richard Selwach was more direct.

"I can't think of one good thing that Mr. Lowe has done," Selwach said, drawing a slight boo from the crowd of about 50 at the United Church of Gainesville.

Monica Leadon Cooper chastised the commission for proposing to build a biomass power plant, which has raised questions from state regulators.

Cooper said she would like to see the city employ more solar energy.

"It's very presumptuous," she said of the biomass project. "I think it leads us into a financial and environmental quagmire."

Marsh argued that the city's previous plan to build a coal-fired plant would be cheaper and better for the environment.

The five mayoral candidates and four of the five District 4 commission candidates attended and answered the same questions from the moderator. (The only one who didn't attend was District 4 candidate Pat Fitzpatrick.)

One question was more a multiple-choice quiz, as the candidates were given sheets of paper with choices to balance the city's budget.

The choices were - among others - layoffs, lowering pay, eliminating automatic raises, a fire services fee and tax increases.

"This is more fun than a boring question," moderator Jimmy Harnsberger said.

Most candidates added their own insight rather than sticking with the options provided.

Reiterating his experience, Lowe said, "I realize that this may have been a challenging exercise for some of the candidates, but it wasn't that challenging for me because I've been through seven city budget cycles."

As he has throughout the campaign, District 4 candidate Mason Alley continued to push for jobs.

"We want to have great neighborhoods, we want to have a great environment, we want to have great schools," Alley said, asserting that all those stem from good jobs.

Nathaniel Sperling, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from the University of Florida, said his primary focus was trimming the fat from city government, which he accused of "fiscal irresponsibility."

A chief goal for Randy Wells, a member of the city's Plan Board, which advises the commission, was maintaining the neighborhoods in the district, which includes the University of Florida campus, the 13th Street corridor and the 5th Avenue neighborhood.

"The passion that drives my interest to be in this race is the passion that is about making our city government work effectively for our city neighborhoods," Wells said.

Penny Wheat, a former county commissioner, said she got into local politics after her son got sick from contaminated drinking water.

The Superfund site, naturally, is high on her agenda, but isn't high enough for the local or federal government.

"Right now, it's too far down on the list," she said.

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