Mayor Lowe reflects on difficulties, opportunities
Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.
A seven-year member of the Gainesville City Commission, Craig Lowe was elected mayor last spring, but it wasn't easy -- he bested his runoff opponent, Don Marsh, by 42 votes. A lawsuit challenging the validity of the election eventually was dismissed.
Lowe's first few months in office couldn't be described as easy either.
He gave his first State of the City address Tuesday, reflecting on the multimillion-dollar deficit the city faced over the summer and the international attention focused on Gainesville in September because a fringe church was threatening to burn Qurans.
In an interview Friday at City Hall, Lowe reflected on the state of the city -- where it stands and where it is heading.
Q. It's been nine months since you were elected. What has surprised you most about the job?
A. Well, I knew that we would have a tough budget year. That I knew going in. I think there were certain events that I wasn't expecting, but I think that we have faced up to them and are facing up to them. For example, the challenge with respect to the Dove World Outreach Center and how that could impact the reputation of our city. But I think our people came through and showed our true character -- that is one of an accepting city and one that values the contributions of all of our citizens regardless of national origin, religion, race, sexual orientation, any factor. Another challenge that we did not foresee was the effort to eliminate the Gainesville Police Department, and that is one that we are facing right now and one that we will see to its conclusion to protect (GPD) as the law enforcement agency that is best suited to provide safety for our citizens.
Q. Of course, you have been outspokenly against the effort to abolish the city's police department. As an elected official, that's fair enough. It's what's expected of you. But should the city staff be engaged in a campaign against the effort?
A. Well, there are certain areas where it is not only appropriate but expected that they do so. And as city staff, they are authorized by the Gainesville City Commission in a resolution that was approved unanimously to oppose this effort.
Q. By all accounts, you're more introverted than -- or at least not as extroverted as -- your predecessor [Pegeen Hanrahan]. With more demands to appear at events and speak publicly, has that been a challenge for you?
A. Well, I think people can only take a look at how I've served and approached the office of mayor and determine whether I'm more reserved in exercising my duties and utilizing the full potential of the mayor's office.
Q. A bill was recently filed in the Florida Senate that would allow firearms on university campuses. As a University of Florida alumnus and mayor of a college town, are you OK with that?
A. I think that bill is a bill that is based on ideology and not on public safety. I have real concerns about public safety if guns were to proliferate on campus -- and not only for the person who may be lawfully carrying a firearm under those circumstances but the possibility of theft where there are a large number of guns present and how a stolen gun could be quickly used to create a tragedy.
Q. In the State of the City address Tuesday, you talked a good deal about progress through ventures like UF's Innovation Square and transportation upgrades like bus rapid transit. Downtown and midtown are reforming, with The Continuum, Depot Park, Second Avenue and a number of other projects. What's your vision for Gainesville 10, 20 or 50 years from now?
A. When I look at Gainesville 20 years from now, I see a city that has implemented bus rapid transit, where the Innovation Square has built out and is providing thousands of jobs for individuals with a wide range of educational attainment, and I see the downtown as a place that is vibrant for people of all ages and engaging in a wide variety of activities -- retail, entertainment, restaurants and offices. I think that we have a great future for Gainesville.
Q. I don't know if it's a record, but there are 13 candidates for the three March 15 city elections. Is that a sign, in your opinion, that more people are paying attention to City Hall or a sign that more people are upset with City Hall?
A. Well, I think it's hard to say what that means. ... When I was running for mayor ... there were a greater number of candidates per office than there are now, and shortly the qualifying period will have ended and so who knows where will wind up? But I think that's about 32 minutes from now when qualifying will have ended. [Note: A 14th candidate did qualify before the noon deadline Friday.]
Q. As mayor, you have served with two of the commissioners [Thomas Hawkins and Lauren Poe] who are running for re-election. Are you going to get involved in extending any support to them or are you going to remain low key?
A. I think that I will be talking with a number of candidates and I will be working for the policies that I think are beneficial for the future of Gainesville and for the vision that I've outlined in the State of the City speech and that I've outlined to you just now.
Q. Can we expect endorsements?
A. I will announce any endorsements at the appropriate time.
Q. While you were giving your speech, a few dozen folks were outside protesting the city's meal limit on soup kitchens. With such a constant outcry, why not repeal it or, as Commissioner Scherwin Henry has proposed in the past, suspend it?
A. Well, I think there is an arrangement that could be made whereby the repeal of the limit would be done, and that would be if the St. Francis House [soup kitchen on Main Street] were to establish a code of conduct that would be effective in reducing the impact of their service to the surrounding areas. So far, the St. Francis House has not been responsive to those efforts. I will say that the city of Gainesville is going above and beyond the call of duty of a municipality in providing for homeless services -- for cold-night shelters, for a one-stop center to provide the full range of services that homeless people require and would find useful in transitioning from homelessness. And this is, again, above and beyond the call of duty because it is actually the county, as the arm of the state, which is the designated social service provider in Florida. We're willing to continue to do more, but we do ask for cooperation from those that are providing services. And actually we [the city] are a funder of the St. Francis House, and I think that's something a lot of people don't realize. But we need to work together. We need to make sure the integrity of our neighborhoods and the quality of life for those who live in the downtown area is maintained, and so far, the St. Francis House has been not fully cooperative in that manner.
Q. As commissioner, you championed an ordinance to extend rights to gay and transgendered people. What is going to be your next big push?
A. My next, I guess you could say, two pushes will be for economic development in a manner that is sustainable environmentally and also for the implementation of bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit has been something that we've talked about in conceptual terms, but it's time to move from the conceptual phase to being more concrete with our plans for moving it forward. For example, what will the initial route look like? Where will it be? Where will the stations be?
Q. Some current city candidates like your opponent in the mayoral runoff, Don Marsh, continue to rail against the biomass plant even though it has received all of the necessary permits. How do you explain such a complex and scientific and polarizing project for lay constituents?
A. There is fuel that can generate electricity that is now available in large quantities that is currently being burned in the field without any air-pollution controls in place and without generating any electricity. The biomass plant is designed to use that fuel to generate electricity with high standards of air-pollution control in place and, in so doing, enhance the growth of our forests and therefore even further address the issue of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
Q. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release its record of decision on the cleanup of the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site in the coming months. The city has been criticized over and over by candidates and others for its lack of action on the matter. How do you view the city's role in the process?
A. I think there are a lot of actions that these individuals are unaware of and uninformed about. For example, just this past week I had the opportunity to speak with the deputy administrator of the (EPA) in Washington, D.C., and in that meeting, I did express the concerns that the people of Gainesville have and also expressed our strong desire for an appropriate remediation at the site. So the (EPA) has been made aware at the highest levels by the mayor of Gainesville and others that we wish to see this situation handled properly, and we will be having follow-up conversations with officials at the (EPA) to continue to relay that message. And there have been extensive efforts by the city and the county with respect to our local intergovernmental team to work to provide the strongest possible response to the previous proposed remediation plan of the EPA so that we will have the best possible outcome with respect to remediation. Also, we have worked extensively with the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, who has taken a lead role in pursuing our cause in Washington, D.C. I think really the accurate statement would be the city of Gainesville and Alachua County have worked together extensively to press for the best possible solution here, and those who say otherwise are just clearly misinformed.
Q. During your State of the City address, you described the challenges you've faced, namely the deficit and Dove World Outreach Center, and you also talked about consolidation, which just popped up recently. What has been the other most challenging thing about this first few months in office?
A. Is that not enough? [Laughs.] I would think that's enough. That would pretty much fill it. When someone seeks to eliminate your police department, that's a pretty challenging situation.