City hopefuls attend Black Caucus debate


BRETT Le BLANC/Special to the Guardian
BRETT Le BLANC/Special to the Guardian

A sign signaling that a candidate's response time has ended is held up at the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus debate.

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.

Candidates in the city of Gainesville races for mayor and City Commission District 4 shared their views on local issues during a debate hosted by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus.

The election, which will be held for city of Gainesville voters only, will take place from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. March 19. The deadline to register to vote is 5 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Supervisor of Elections Office at 111 SE 1st Ave.

The debate was moderated by Ermon Owens, president of the caucus, and Charles Goston, a two-time past president of the caucus. The mission of the caucus is to increase the political power of black county Democrats.

Both incumbents, Mayor Craig Lowe and District 4 Commissioner Randy Wells, did not participate in the debate, which was dominated by issues surrounding the controversial biomass plant, bus rapid transit, economic development and leadership at City Hall.

However, Wells did show up for the mayoral debate after attending a city of Gainesville Community Development Committee meeting and Lowe informed the caucus Monday morning that he had a family emergency and could not attend forum, which drew a crowd of more than 50 people.

All of the mayoral candidates said they will work hard to terminate the 30-year contract the City Commission signed to buy power for the biomass plant. Scherwin Henry, who voted to approve the contract in 2009 while occupying the District 1 seat on the commission, said he would vote against approving the contract now. He said he was "misled by staff" at the time while deciding how to vote on the issue. He also said he wish he would have been more demanding in trying to keep a back-out clause in the contract.

Some of the candidates had varying views on bus rapid transit, a lower cost public transit solution designed to improve urban mobility. Former city commissioner Ed Braddy said the future designs the city has for bus rapid transit do not take into consideration who needs public transportation the most.

Instead of implementing a bus rapid transit plan, Braddy said he supports dedicating "three out of every four new dollars" the city receives for transit to reducing headways (the time between buses on the same line) on city bus routes in east Gainesville. He said implementing a bus rapid transit plan in Gainesville with the current RTS routes and ridership would be "taking a big pile of money and throwing it in a hole."

Mark Venzke, who ran for an at-large seat on the commission last year, said he would support experimenting with bus rapid transit on a trial basis if "market research" was used to select the route.

"I don't think we should put a lot of money into a BRT until we see that it works," Venzke said.

Pete Johnson, former chair of the Gainesville-Alachua County Airport Authority, said bus ridership in east Gainesville will only increase if it is a viable option for residents; otherwise, people will continue to find other ways to get where they need to go.

The candidates also talked about how they would lead and increase trust at City Hall.

Donald Shepherd Sr., a former University of Florida employee, said he will be guided by "his heart and what the people tell me" if he is elected mayor. He said what he lacks in education, he makes up with "heart" and "drive," and he has the people and the Lord behind him.

"With all that, you can guarantee that there is going to be policies addressed to help the people who are in need," he said.

Johnson said making access to public information readily available is the No. 1 thing he would do to build trust with people and prove his leadership qualities.

Braddy said "welcoming the people back into City Hall" is the first thing that needs to be done to increase public trust in the commission. He said people should not have to sign up before 6 p.m. to talk at city commission meetings, and he said people should be allotted more than three minutes to speak, if they need it. He also said he supports placing people on the agenda of meetings if they have something pressing to say.

Venzke said he would bring accessibility, clarity, fiscal responsibility and integrity to city hall. "Those are qualities I practice myself," Venzke said. "I believe in trust."

Henry emphasized that he is a great listener, a quality he said is essential for a leader. "As I am running for mayor, I might have ideas and visions I want to implement, but most of all, it's important that I hear from those who I will be representing," Henry said.

Mac McEachern was the only District 4 candidate at the debate. Alfredo Espinosa, a UF student running for that seat, was a no-show.

McEachern, a former city commissioner, spent 45 minutes talking about why he is the best candidate for the job. He said he is running to represent all residents of Gainesville and to serve on the GRU Board of Directors, which is comprised of the City Commission. He said he is concerned about a disconnect between residents and the commission.

He also talked about the importance of improving bus service in east Gainesville, protecting neighborhoods and getting GRU to return fuel adjustment funds back to taxpayers.

"GRU is carrying fuel adjustment funds as a liability. They call it a temporary liability," he said. "I don't know how you carry temporary liabilities on the books — that's a new one to me."

McEachern also said he supports terminating the biomass contract and working with businesses to create more jobs in Gainesville, especially in east Gainesville. He also said energy rates are going to rise under the biomass contract, adding that the high energy costs will keep businesses from coming to Gainesville.

"The biomass contract is the worst and largest contract in the history of the city of Gainesville," McEachern said.

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