Biomass, transportation, conference center topics at candidate forum
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.
The African American Accountability Alliance hosted the first candidate forum of the Gainesville election season Monday.
All six of the mayoral candidates and two of the three District 4 candidates attended.
The biomass plant, a potential downtown hotel and conference center and transportation issues were among the topics covered.
Former city commissioners and current mayoral candidates Ed Braddy and Scherwin Henry also criticized incumbent Mayor Craig Lowe over the way that the city hired Lowe's former campaign manager as a mayoral assistant outside a competitive process.
Braddy described it as a "disgraceful act by the mayor." When Lowe said all hiring regulations were followed as required, Henry questioned if the job was advertised and interviews conducted. Lowe said those steps were not necessary because the job is categorized as a temporary position.
Here are excerpts from the candidates, starting with the mayor's race:
Braddy arrived about two hours into the forum after attending a campaign event. The former two-term commissioner targeted Lowe on issues such as bus rapid transit, Gainesville Regional Utilities rates and the mayoral assistant. He said the city's planned rapid transit system would not serve east Gainesville adequately. Braddy also argued that the biomass plant now under construction would bring "skyrocketing" electric rates and Lowe was "callous and indifferent" to the impact.
A former two-term incumbent, Henry noted that he voted in favor of the biomass contract in 2009, but the rate impact looks to be more dramatic now.
"We're not perfect as city commissioners, we make decisions as best we can," with the information available at the time and input from staff, Henry said.
He said the focus now must be on limiting rate increases.
Henry also criticized the current commission's decision to not move forward to negotiate with two development groups that submitted proposals for a downtown hotel and conference center. The amount of public incentives sought played a role in the commission's decision. Henry pointed out that the city has pumped millions into Depot Park and does consider incentives on other projects.
The former chair of the Gainesville-Alachua County Airport Authority Board and a member of the city Plan Board, Johnson called for more transparency in government and better access to public records. He said he would seek to undo the city's current policy on records, which makes each employee the custodian of their own records instead of the clerk. He said development of a hotel-conference center needs to be "market driven." Johnson said he supported the biomass plant when it was approved but now it could be Gainesville's "fiscal cliff."
A former two-term commissioner seeking a second term as mayor, Lowe pointed to economic development gains over the past few years with the arrival of Silver Airways, Mindtree and the Prioria Robotics expansion. He frequently spoke in favor of developing a bus rapid transit system — and including it in any future transportation sales tax referendum — to see through the vision of the Plan East Gainesville document and increase transportation options.
Lowe said commissioners were justified in moving cautiously on the hotel-conference center.
"If we do it right it will be a great asset; if we don't do it right it will be a huge white elephant in the middle of downtown," he said.
He acknowledged that the city's projections when approving the biomass contract have not come to pass. One step to cushion against rate hikes Lowe supported was lowering the transfer of revenues from GRU to general government by the amount the biomass plant generates in property tax revenues.
Shepherd criticized the City Commission for the biomass plant and the increase it will bring to electric rates. He also said commissioners were not open to taking public feedback into account in the decision-making process.
"Your taxpayer voice isn't going to make one difference to them," he said.
On biomass, Venzke, who ran for City Commission in 2012, said, "What appeared to be a good idea morphed into a monster." He called for the city to pursue the renegotiation of the contract to lower its costs.
On the potential of a transportation sales tax referendum that would include roads and transit, Venzke said he would support letting the voters decide if they are willing to pay an extra tax for those projects.
McEachern, who served on the City Commission in the 1980s, focused much of his criticism on GRU, the biomass plant and the city's decision to build up a fund of more than $20 million on current electric customer fuel charges to offset the future rate impact of the biomass plant.
He said the City Commission is not open to public feedback, and city government is not forthcoming with information about GRU.
McEachern spoke against a transportation sales tax and said any hotel-conference center should also be driven by the private sector.
An incumbent seeking a second term, Wells said the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution could become a community asset if the city acquires it for its long-planned homeless shelter and assistance center, while expanding the plan to include job training and a social services hub.
Wells said he believed the city and the current County Commission could bring a "balanced" approach to a transportation sales tax that includes transit and roads.
On biomass, Wells said he believed that the development of a local renewable energy source and local jobs reflected community values.
The African American Accountability alliance endorsed Henry in the mayor's race and Wells for District 4.
District 4 candidate Alfredo Espinosa was absent.