Gainesville candidates for mayor question each other at forum


All six mayoral candidates -- from left to right, Donald Shepherd, incumbent Craig Lowe, Pete Johnson, Mark Venzke, Scherwin Henry and Ed Braddy -- speak during a candidates' forum sponsored by the Democracy Commitment at Santa Fe College at the Santa Fe Center for Innovation and Economic Development at the college's Blount Center in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 4:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 4:55 p.m.

In the final days of the race for Gainesville mayor, the Democracy Commitment at Santa Fe College’s forum Wednesday offered a new wrinkle.

Candidates fielded questions from other candidates, which led to incumbent Craig Lowe and former two-term City Commissioner Ed Braddy each accusing the other of playing loose with facts.

Posing a question to Lowe, Braddy said the incumbent has touted the economic gains of bringing in MindTree and keeping the expanding Prioria Robotics on the campaign trail.

He asked if Lowe, in addition to taking credit for gains, would take responsibility for job and company losses, such as the closure of beverage can lid manufacturer Ball Corp’s Gainesville plant last year. That decision, Braddy said, was based on high energy costs that would rise when the biomass plant comes online.

Lowe described that as “misinformation,” saying the company’s provided reason for the decision was the distance of this location from its customer base.

Lowe posed a question to Braddy that referenced their time together on the City Commission and a circumstance involving residents from the Stephen Foster neighborhood who came to a meeting with concerns about the adjacent vehicle maintenance facility at the Public Works Department.

Lowe said he informed the residents of an issue that their district commissioner, then Braddy, had not brought to their attention — the Koppers superfund site, which is located to the south of the Public Works vehicle maintenance facility.

Braddy responded that it was “plainly absurd” to suggest that someone in that neighborhood did not know about the contaminated wood treatment plant site until Lowe brought it to their attention.

As the incumbent, Lowe had the majority of the questions put to him. Candidate Mark Venzke questioned the non-competitive hiring in 2010 of Lowe’s former campaign manager as a mayoral assistant.

The creation of the position and the hiring, Venzke said, were not consistent with the city charter.

During the forum and in a brief interview afterward, Lowe said the clerk of the commission made the hire and the job did not have to go through a competitive hiring process under city policies because it was established as a temporary position.

Asked after the forum if he had not requested that the clerk hire his former campaign manager, Garrett Garner, Lowe said that he’d had “input” and asked for that individual but reiterated his statement that the clerk made the final decision.

He also downplayed the issue, saying challengers had to “go into the weeds on this” because of the economic successes in the city.

“When you focus on issues like this, you’ve got nothing,” Lowe said in an interview after the forum.

Former Commissioner Scherwin Henry, whose district included east Gainesville, posed his question to Pete Johnson, the former chairman of the airport authority. Henry questioned why there has not been more growth at the airport to bring jobs to east Gainesville.

Johnson said there was “a lot of effort” but the process to draw in airlines often takes years. He recalled flying to Dallas to woo American Airlines, which did come to Gainesville.

During Johnson’s tenure, the authority also paid to renovate a hangar to draw in Eclipse Aviation, which manufactured planes for the DayJet air taxi service. Eclipse and DayJet did not last long in Gainesville, with both filing for bankruptcy. Silver Airways, which located to Gainesville last year, now uses the renovated hangar.

Johnson posed his question to Lowe. He said that, during Lowe’s tenure, he was “disappointed” in the handling of the time set aside for general public comment. Johnson also spoke of frustration with a public records policy that no longer has the clerk as the gatekeeper but makes employees the custodian of their own records.

Lowe defended the records policy by saying there would be a “great delay” if the clerk had to process all requests. As for the public comment segment of meetings, Lowe said a “very passionate citizenry” can lead to “disruptions” during public comment and he has worked to keep order.

Candidate Donald Shepherd Sr. declined the opportunity to ask a question. Shepherd said he saw it as a way for candidates to “attack the city mayor” and he wanted to talk instead about the “advancement of the city.”

During the forum, Lowe frequently stated that companies were coming to or expanding in Gainesville because the city offers a good quality of life achieved by environmental and neighborhood protections and broad anti-discrimination policies.

Henry said economic inequalities remain under Lowe.

“There are a significant number of citizens who are not enjoying the quality of life the mayor is talking about,” he said.

On the biomass plant, every candidate but Lowe said they would support an effort to nullify the 30-year biomass contract to purchase power on the grounds that two separate sales of a combined 57 percent ownership interest violated the contract.

If the contract cannot be voided, Johnson and Venzke said they felt there could be some benefit if the city is able to purchase a controlling interest in the plant. That is something the city’s ongoing demand for arbitration seeks as an option.

Johnson said he felt that could cut costs because the city would not have to include the private biomass company’s profit margin in its electric prices. Venzke said it would give the city more control over decisions involving the plant.

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