Six mayoral candidates have distinctly different missions


Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 11, 2013 at 9:29 a.m.

Six candidates are vying to be Gainesville's mayor in the March 19 city election.

With early voting under way starting Monday, the ballot also includes the race for City Commission District 4.

If a runoff is needed for either the mayoral or City Commission race, that will occur on April 16.

The field for mayor includes two former city commissioners; the incumbent, who is also a former city commissioner; and the former chairman of the airport authority. Here's a glimpse at the mayoral candidates:

Ed Braddy

Braddy served on the City Commission from 2002 to 2008. He's co-hosted the local conservative political radio talk show Talk of the Town, but stepped away from that to run for office.

He said his campaign is focused on changing the city's spending priorities.

“To me, this race is a contest between the extravagant and expensive vision of my opponents versus my back-to-the-basics approach of funding core services and maintaining basic infrastructure ... I really want to focus on affordability to live in the city,” he said.

Braddy is executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a nonprofit group critical of smart growth policies. He said he would work to scrap the city's plans for bus rapid transit. It is an expensive plan — a 2010 Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization report had projected costs above $300 million — that the city does not have the overall ridership or population density to support, he said.

He points to the city's own feasibility study, which projects less than 4,000 daily bus rapid transit riders by 2035 on Archer Road. By contrast, an MTPO report from September 2012 had more than 46,000 daily vehicle trips on the stretch of Archer from Interstate 75 to Southwest 34th Street.

Should bus rapid transit involve the removal of vehicle travel lanes from area roadways, one of many details not yet determined, Braddy said it will aggravate congestion.

He said the city's transportation focus should be on fixing roads and on having buses run more frequently in east Gainesville.

On growth, Braddy said mixed-use development works in areas such as downtown, but he argues the City Commission is trying to push the concept throughout the city to create the population density needed to achieve a “vision of this transit-oriented future.”

Like most candidates, Braddy is campaigning in opposition to the city's biomass contract, saying it will drive up electric rates.

He had been termed-limited out of office when the City Commission unanimously approved the contract in 2009. A year earlier, it was Braddy who made the motion, after listening to public opposition, for the city to select staff's top-ranked proposal for a biomass plant, a 100-megawatt generating station, and start contract negotiations.

At that May 2008 meeting, Braddy said the city had a “good set of proposals in front of us” and had been a “long way” in reviewing and discussing the planned plant.

“I don't see this as a rush to judgment,” Braddy said then.

Today, Braddy said he was never a strong supporter of the biomass plant and initially favored a coal-fired plant, which he says, in retrospect, was a mistake. Braddy said the City Commission, himself included, should have heeded the public concerns in 2008.

“I think the biggest lesson is that a lot of people in the audience were right and we should have listened to them more carefully,” Braddy said.

Scherwin Henry

Henry served two terms as the District 1 city commissioner before hitting term limits last year.

He said there's a disconnect between the current City Commission and the public and addressing that is his priority.

“I want to restore the trust and the confidence between local government and the citizens,” Henry said. “We are there to serve, and citizens will not always agree with what we do. But we need to understand that we serve the citizens and need to listen to them and be responsive. The attitude that has come across to citizens is if we disagree with what you want, you get a response that is no response.”

Henry said the city needs to look at regulatory and permitting policies to make sure they do not hinder economic development. Bringing in jobs for those without a college degree has to be a priority, he said.

“I support the innovation economy, but we need to produce jobs in different sectors as well, such as skilled trades, blue-collar sectors and white-collar sectors,” he said.

On transportation, he said the city needs to focus on fixing roads and improving service on routes that residents rely on to get to work.

He has been critical of the City Commission's handling last year of the county's failed road sales tax. Henry said he feels a compromise could have been reached to add Regional Transit Service projects to the tax if the City Commission had not taken the approach of “digging in the heels and demanding funding for bus rapid transit.”

“The city came off looking like a bully, and that did not generate good will with the other municipalities,” Henry said.

Henry was in office when the City Commission unanimously approved the biomass contract in 2009. If he had it to do over, he said he would vote against the contract. Henry said his decision to approve the contract relied on information staff provided on projected rate impacts and those impacts are now more substantial than he was told.

On homeless issues, Henry was outspoken in support of removing the meal limit at the St. Francis House well before the full City Commission voted to do so. The city is now looking to potentially locate a long-planned homeless shelter and assistance center in the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution off Northeast 39th Avenue.

Henry, who has previously expressed concerns about east Gainesville being targeted as the location for the county jail, the now-closed prison and homeless facilities, said he supports the plan if the facility is an “empowerment” center that offers job training and social services to not only the homeless but other residents as well.

“What would you rather have? Prisoners or be able to help the less fortunate?” he said of the plan for the shuttered prison.

Henry said the state should not require the city to pay for the site since city residents are state taxpayers.

Pete Johnson

Johnson served on the Gainesville-Alachua County Regional Airport Authority board from 2004 to 2009 and spent two years as chair.

He said he wants city government to be more “accessible and available” to the public and more “citizen focused.”

Johnson wants to move away from the current city policy of having each employee the custodian of their own records and back to a system where the Clerk of the Commission is the “gatekeeper to giving access to public records.”

The current system, he said, “heightens the frustration people have accessing information.”

Johnson said he would also push to extend the allowable time each speaker has during public comment at City Commission meetings from three to five minutes. He would do away with the requirement that speakers sign up in advance to talk during the 6 p.m. time for public comment.

“I don't think we should be quite as limiting as we've been,” he said.

On transportation, he supports a sales tax referendum for roads and bus service. But he said bus rapid transit should not be part of those tax talks when the current transit system still needs improvement. The city and the county need to work together more closely to “get political support for the obvious need of our roads.”

Johnson says Ironwood Golf Course and the biomass plant are both financial concerns. He has voiced concern that Ironwood continues to lose money. He says the city needs to mitigate the rate impacts of the biomass plant through efforts to renegotiate the contract. He feels the effort to potentially get a partial ownership interest through arbitration could benefit the city because a portion of the $103 million that Gainesville Regional Utilities will pay annually under the biomass contract could come back to GRU as revenue.

Craig Lowe

Lowe served on the City Commission from 2003 to 2010 and now seeks a second term as mayor.

On the campaign trail, Lowe has pointed to the economic development gains of recent years. Firms such as MindTree and Silver Airways have come to Gainesville. Prioria Robotics expanded and stayed in the city, and interest in the Innovation Square area has grown.

“We've created the kind of community that companies want to relocate to or expand in,” he said.

Lowe said he feels the city draws the companies with an attractive quality of life that includes neighborhood and environmental protections and a vibrant arts scene.

While campaigning, he has advocated the development of a bus rapid transit system to offer “another choice in our overall transportation system” alongside the automobile, conventional bus service and bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

Bus rapid transit is years away, he said, but the city must plan and secure funding now. Lowe noted that Eugene, Ore. — a university town in a metro area of roughly 200,000, similar to the Gainesville metro area of roughly 250,000 — has had a rapid transit system in place for several years.

With all other candidates criticizing the biomass contract, Lowe noted that Braddy voted in support of moving ahead with plans for the plant as a commissioner and Henry was part of the City Commission that unanimously approved the contract.

Lowe said the plant will help GRU diversify its fuel sources and protect the environment through reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

“This is a long-term decision, and strategic decisions need to be made with a long-term view that is not subject to short-term political whims,” Lowe said.

During his tenure as mayor, Lowe has faced criticism over the fact that the city hired his campaign manager from 2010, Garrett Garner, as a mayoral aide without a competitive hiring process.

Lowe has responded that a competitive process was not required because the job, which Garner has now been in for some three years, is categorized as a temporary professional position.

Lowe has also faced criticism, including from mayoral opponents, for putting in place the requirement that speakers sign up in advance to speak at the 6 p.m. time for public comment.

“There are those, a very tiny group, who want to disrupt City Commission meetings,” Lowe said. “It is my duty as mayor to ensure that meetings run in an orderly fashion and there are apparently mayoral candidates who want meetings run in a disorderly fashion.”

Donald Shepherd Sr.

Shepherd, a former groundskeeper and worker at the University of Florida, currently supports himself through unemployment. He said he knows the struggles those with limited means face paying utility bills and taxes.

His goal, he said, is “to operate in the best interest of the people.”

His priorities include keeping utility rates reasonable, establishing a center to house the homeless and catching up on the city's backlog of road projects.

If elected, he wants to review the city budget to see where spending and employees can be cut.

“I'm going to look at the books and make sure there aren't too many people there, make sure it's not costing the taxpayer too much,” Shepherd said.

Mark Venzke

Venzke ran for the City Commission in 2012 and says he is now an entrepreneur trying to start an electric taxi company in Gainesville.

Venzke's platform focuses on a “fully responsible” energy policy, having open and responsive government, and enabling “socially and economically disengaged” people while revitalizing struggling neighborhoods.

He said pushing to see through the cleanup of the Koppers superfund site and contaminated off-site properties would also be a priority.

Venzke said coal, natural gas and biomass all raise environmental concerns as fuel for power plants. He would like to see the city, which already has an ambitious solar program, take additional steps to promote the public and private sector installation of solar arrays.

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