Economy reigns as No. 1 issue at area candidate debate
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 11:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 11:08 p.m.
Don't hang the economy on Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly.
At a debate hosted by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus on Thursday evening, Byerly questioned whether people should simply “hang the economy” on whoever happens to be in office at the time that it sours.
The current economy is struggling, but in the early 2000s, it was good, Byerly said. He has served on the County Commission for 12 years in both good and bad economies. If people want to blame him and his fellow commissioners for the bad economy, he reasoned they should also give credit for the good.
Byerly's opponent for the District 1 race, Republican John Martin, responded by asking for an explanation of why Tower Road is a “pig trail” and other streets are in disrepair despite the good economic times the commission previously presided over.
“Where did the money go during the good times when they could have been building that infrastructure?” Martin asked.
Martin, Byerly and other candidates for the three County Commission seats up for election in November — Districts 1, 3 and 5 — participated in a joint, moderated debate attended by about 30 people.
Democrat and state Rep. Charles S. “Chuck” Chestnut IV, who is running for District 5, and write-in candidate Bryan C. “Buck” Buchanan, who is running for District 3, were the only two absent. Chestnut apologized for his tardiness when he arrived as candidates were making their closing remarks, explaining he had been at a fundraiser. His opponents, Republican Dean Cheshire and no-party-affiliated candidate K. Siva Prasad, had both commented on his noticeable absence earlier.
The economy was clearly the top issue among candidates, as Cheshire pointed out when he said this is a “pocketbook election.”
Cheshire, Martin and District 3 candidate Jean Calderwood, all Republicans, were vocal about the need for a change in the commission's direction.
Calderwood said the new commission should consider the entire county, especially smaller cities, in its decisions instead of focusing on Gainesville. Martin said the commission needs to re-examine its budget and question the merits of everything the county funds.
Cheshire spoke in favor not of a GOP takeover of the traditionally Democratic commission but for a shift toward bipartisanship within it.
“We've got to get away from party, we've got to get away from partisan politics, and most importantly, we have to get away from career politicians,” Cheshire said.
Unlike his opponent, Chestnut, Cheshire has never been elected to public office.
Consolidation of city and county services and the Gainesville Regional Utilities biomass plant were two other issues the candidates discussed extensively during the debate.
Democrat and District 3 candidate Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, a former county commissioner, suggested that fire rescue services be consolidated under county control because it would be more cost-effective and efficient.
Martin said that could be a good idea but doubted the city of Gainesville would give it the necessary support for it to succeed.
Hutchinson was the only candidate who spoke favorably of the GRU biomass plant, saying it would be fuel that could be controlled locally and would bring jobs to the county.
Calderwood and Martin said the County Commission should take an active role in the biomass debate because it impacts county residents.
Byerly said that while he doesn't support the plant, it wasn't a decision he and his fellow commissioners were elected to make.
The County Commission will hold a meeting on the biomass issue later this month.
In addition to the commission candidates, people running for sheriff, School Board District 4, state House District 21 and U.S. House District 3 attended the debate.
No-party-affiliated sheriff candidate John Annarumma said he would streamline the Sheriff's Office budget if elected, reducing the number of administrative positions and emphasizing the importance of getting more deputies out in the community.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell questioned Annarumma's lack of experience with managing a multimillion-dollar budget like that of the Sheriff's Office.
Republican Keith Perry, a candidate for state House District 21, promoted his business experience and opponent Democrat Andrew Morey highlighted his career as a lawyer as solid foundations for their candidacies.
Perry said the reality is that, in a Republican-controlled state Legislature, residents need a GOP representative to successfully further their interests.
Morey said he may not be able to be as proactive as Perry, but he would vote in defense of residents against GOP-fueled laws that would act against their interests, such as laws that cut funding to the University of Florida, rather than go along with them as he said Perry would.
Perry insisted that more government isn't the solution to the state's problems, while Morey countered that Republicans wouldn't be enacting laws to limit women's rights if they wanted less regulation.
The only national race represented at the debate was the U.S. House campaign for District 3. Democrat J.R. Gaillot debated with Tom Hayes-Morrison, a stand-in for Republican candidate Ted Yoho, who was in Washington, D.C. Gaillot spoke in favor of the Affordable Health Care Act, saying it isn't perfect but ultimately saves lives, while Hayes-Morrison explained Yoho's opposition to the law.
School Board candidate Leanetta McNealy also didn't have a challenger present. She said improving graduation rates was key and that she supported salary increases for teachers.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/morganwatkins26.