Bus rapid transit, biomass hot topics at mayoral debate


Charles Goston moderates a forum for mayoral candidates hosted by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus in Gainesville, Fla. on Monday, February 11, 2013. (Brett Le Blanc / The Gainesville Sun)

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 10:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 10:44 p.m.

Bus rapid transit, biomass and the public's access to records were a few of the issues debated at the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus Monday evening.

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Charles Goston moderates a forum for mayoral candidates hosted by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus in Gainesville, Fla. on Monday, February 11, 2013. (Brett Le Blanc / The Gainesville Sun)

Five of the six candidates participated, with incumbent Mayor Craig Lowe absent.

Former two-term City Commissioner Scherwin Henry criticized the current commission's pursuit of a bus rapid transit system and the fact that the majority would not support a transit tax in November that did not put funding toward it.

Henry argued that that stance was tone deaf to a public that he felt wanted roads fixed and improvement of the service on the current Gainesville Regional Transit System bus routes that residents rely on to get to work or the store.

Former City Commissioner Ed Braddy said the current city bus service was not adequate except for university and college students. He labeled bus rapid transit an expensive “boondoggle” that Gainesville did not have the population density or development to support.

As an alternative, he said the city should spend its money filling up an articulated rapid transit bus with contaminated soil from the Koppers superfund site and driving it out of town.

Instead of rapid transit, Braddy proposed that the city put three-fourths of new RTS monies toward reducing headways on east Gainesville routes.

Mark Venzke, who ran for the commission last year, supported moving ahead cautiously with bus rapid transit. Venzke proposed express bus routes on a trial basis on a high demand route. He said enhanced transit service would bring benefits through reduced congestion and carbon emissions.

The candidates criticized Lowe for putting in place a requirement that members of the public sign up in advance to talk during the 6 p.m. time for public comment at commission meetings.

Former Gainesville-Alachua County Airport Authority Board Chair Pete Johnson said the situation at City Hall “has gotten so political that even when mistakes are made, people won't admit them and they won't address them.”

Johnson said he also would push to undo the city policy that makes each individual employee the custodian of their own records, responsible for fulfilling records requests. He wanted that back under the Clerk of the Commission, saying that would make records more accessible “bring sunshine back into city government.”

Donald Shepherd Sr. said he lives on an unemployment check and the city should stop spending money on items such as speed tables or roundabouts or median beautification projects to save taxpayer money. He spoke of 114 ideas he'd implement if elected and said he would be “operating for the people's views.”

Each candidate said the city should take a more hardline stance and try to terminate the 30-year contract to buy power from the biomass plant. The city is now pursuing arbitration saying the late 2011 sale of a 40 percent stake in the plant should have triggered the city's right to make a first offer. As it stands, the city's arbitration claim has brought a counterclaim seeking monetary damages from the biomass firm, the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center.

Henry noted that he voted to approve the biomass contract while in office in 2009.

Henry said Monday that “hindsight is 20/20” and he would not vote for the plant now and would have been more adamant in trying to keep a back-out clause in the contract.

This week, Lowe cited a family emergency for his absence, said moderator Charles Goston. Goston, who routinely included criticism of the current City Commission majority in his questions, said the organizers had tried to reach Lowe for weeks about the event and it was an “affront to the organization” that he did not attend.

District 4

One candidate running for the District 4 seat on the City Commission, Mac McEachern, attended the forum.

McEachern criticized the commission for the biomass contract, the fact that Lowe's former campaign manager was hired as a mayoral aide without a competitive hiring process and the using the fuel adjustment charge on current electric utility customers to build up a fund to limit future rate increases from the biomass plant.

Incumbent Commissioner Randy Wells missed the time allotted for District 4 candidates because of the city's Community Development Committee meeting and sat in the audience as mayoral candidates spoke. A third candidate, University of Florida student Alfredo Espinosa, did not attend.

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