Lowe, others reflect on his 10-year tenure
Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 9:32 p.m.
Officially, Craig Lowe's term as mayor ends at noon on May 23.
For all intents and purposes, Lowe's 10-year tenure as a city commissioner and then mayor ended shortly before midnight Thursday in a sparsely populated meeting room at City Hall.
It was another marathon meeting, but this one was Lowe's last.
Commissioners told stories of serving together. Commissioner Randy Wells recalled one about Lowe calming a group scared of a snake on a sister city trip to Israel and Palestine. Staff and fellow commissioners thanked Lowe for his service to the city. He received gifts such as a plaque with the city seal and a photograph of a Florida panther.
Then, the meeting ended with a round of applause from the small group present.
With it ended a three-year term as mayor that was a time of ups and downs.
In the aftermath of the recession, Gainesville maintained one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state and emerged as a burgeoning technology hub. The city added some 1,000 acres to its conservation land holdings and moved toward renewable energy sources through the solar feed-in tariff and the biomass plant now nearing completion.
City government either completed or commenced significant construction projects such as Gainesville Regional Utilities' eastside operations center, the new Community Redevelopment Agency office building, the future police headquarters, Depot Park, Cone Park, the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration project and, most recently, the state-of-the art Regional Transit System bus maintenance facility and garage.
There was also tumult for Lowe — from the beginning through this year's unsuccessful re-election bid.
Lowe's 42-vote win in a 2010 runoff was challenged in court. The city's hiring of his former campaign manager as a mayoral aide, a position that sunsets at the end of Lowe's term, was a source of public dispute. Continued organized opposition to the biomass plant, which will increase electric rates already among the highest in the state, dominated public comment during City Commission meetings.
There was criticism of additional rules, including a requirement for speakers to sign up in advance, that Lowe placed on the oft-contentious 6 p.m. public comment period before the City Commission and the argument that he was dismissive of opposing opinions.
In the midst of his campaign for re-election, there was an arrest on charges of driving under the influence.
When former two-term City Commissioner Ed Braddy defeated Lowe by a comfortable margin in an April runoff, it marked the third time a Gainesville mayor had lost a re-election bid.
To date, only Pegeen Hanrahan, who served from 2004 to 2010, has won re-election since the city went to the system of a separately elected mayor.
Looking back on his time in office, Lowe said he first ran for City Commission back in 2003 to focus on quality-of-life issues such as environmental and neighborhood protections and equality, and he said those remained a focus throughout his time in office.
At his last meeting, he opposed an offer for the city to sell off a five-acre piece of Loblolly Woods Nature Park for $1 million, an issue that sharply divided the commission. Lowe said he feared it would set a precedent that the commission sees conservation land as "fungible inventory" that could be sold off and replaced.
As a commissioner, Lowe, who is gay, was a driving force behind the city's establishment of a domestic partner registry and the 2008 expansion of its anti-discrimination ordinance to cover gender identity.
The next year, a voter referendum drive sought to scale back the city's law to match state law, removing protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Lowe formed a political action committee to fight the referendum, which voters ultimately defeated.
Terry Fleming, with the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida, said Lowe showed strong political will in the face of "significant push back" during the divisive lead up to that referendum.
Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said Lowe showed the "tenacity to stick to things you believe in" the face of opposition.
Campaigning in 2010, Lowe was targeted by the small but controversial local church Dove World Outreach Center, which placed a "no homo mayor" sign on its property. A few months into his term, Dove World brought negative international attention to Gainesville and forced heightened security with a threat to burn copies of the Muslim holy book the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
When media from across the world focused on Gainesville, Lowe and local clergy members stepped forward to denounce Dove World's actions and say these actions were not a reflection of the community.
On Thursday evening, Commissioner Susan Bottcher said Lowe showed the world that "we are not what this one man is espousing."
The praise from other commissioners also focused on the more nuts and bolts aspects of the job. Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls noted a skill for synthesizing issues. Hawkins said he learned from Lowe the dedication needed to work a piece of sponsored legislation up through the committee process to the full City Commission.
Commissioner Todd Chase, who'd clashed with Lowe at the dais before, said: "You've been a strong advocate for the things you believe in, and I respect you for that."
Chase said that he and Lowe had both lost their mothers while serving in office and that was something, away from city issues, they'd had a personal discussion about.
At Lowe's last meeting, public opposition also continued. Nathan Skop, a former commission candidate and outspoken critic of the biomass contract, displayed Lowe's bar receipts from the March night of his DUI arrest on an overhead projector.
The time of the sale, after 1 a.m., showed Lowe had not told the truth when he said he'd had the last of three beers at 10 p.m. that evening, Skop said. Skop then requested an apology to the public.
Debbie Martinez, a frequent speaker opposed to the biomass plant, said "shame on you" to Lowe for allowing former Mayor Hanrahan to speak twice on an item that was before the City Commission hours earlier after limiting Skop to speaking once at the May 2 meeting.
On Friday, Lowe said the public opposition he sometimes faced at meetings was not a surprise.
"I wasn't totally surprised when opposition rose at various points," he said. "That had happened before. It did intensify to some degree. At points where ideas didn't prevail, the thought was the intensity needed to be ratcheted up and that resulted in a high level of emotion about issues, including the biomass plant."
Lowe declined to speak about his DUI arrest. He said that others playing "Monday morning quarterback" came with the job, but declined to identify any specific city issues he would have handled differently. Lowe said he felt a "combination of events and issues" led to his loss in the April election but did not want to offer details on them.
He said he remained firm in his conviction that the biomass plant would be a long-term benefit to the city. He said he believed it would address climate change by making a fuel source out of wood waste and logging residue that would otherwise be burned in an open field or put in a landfill. It would also create a local fuel source and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, he said.
Looking back, Lowe said the city's collaboration with the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, the business community and county government had already spurred economic development and would continue to do so.
"The businesses want to come here because we have good quality neighborhoods, a beautiful natural environment we want to preserve and protect, and we are a community that embraces people from all cultural backgrounds," Lowe said.
He said he would remain active in community issues but he did not yet know what he would move on to after his term ends Thursday.