All the the candidates introduced themselves. Then they went into an explanation of their thoughts on the top issues for the City of Gainesville and the ward they are trying to represent. There seems to be a focus of traffic problems being the top issue before the City Government. I’m very surprised by this, being I would have listed a half dozen other issue as being a bigger priority.
Next the moderator asked how the candidates would be similar or different from the individual they would replace. All the candidates in ward 3 doted over Myrtle Figueras. Similarly the candidates in ward 2 spoke well of Bob Hamrick.
Comprehensive Plan was the next topic. We are finally getting into the real issues of the forum. Ms Brooks and Ms Smith said they haven’t looked into the plan yet. Even though they were told it would be part of the forum. Ms Cheeks said she has started to digest the plan and spent time with city employees trying to get up to speed on it. Mr Thompson talked about it being a good guide and the importance of it being updated annually. Mr Turner and Mr Betancourt spoke of it positively and both spoke of its massive size.
Next was discussed zoning and economic development. Everyone basically said the city is great and heading in the right direction and economic development is growing well. Mr Thompson added a BUT. He said the City has way too much red tape and the City needs to be an easier place for small business to thrive. Sitting right behind me was Mayor Dunagan. He mumbled to Councilman Couvillon that he agreed with Mr Thompson.
Joe Diaz (one of the moderators) then asked what about protecting the neighborhoods from development. Communicating with residents and following the Comp Plan seemed to be the direction everyone went in.
Wilson Golden (the other moderator) then asked the candidates to explain their philosophy on taxation. Mr Thompson compared it to business. Saying all increases need to be explained and shown why the increase is a need rather than a want. Ms Brooks emphasized paying off debt is her priority. Everyone else pretty much said they don’t like taxes but see the need.
Mr Diaz then asked the candidates their opinion on at-large vs district voting. Mr Turner said he didn’t care what method but that more people needed to vote than typically go to the polls. Mr Betancourt said he wanted a referendum on the issue put to the voters. Ms Brooks seems to be flustered by the 1 min response time and never seems to get to the point. Ms Cheek and Ms Smith said they are good with the current method. Mr Thompson said district voting is coming but he doesn’t think Gainesville is ready. Mr Diaz decided to interject to ask if a lawsuit happens what does the City do? Mr Betancourt replied that the demographics (not population) mandate that a change is needed.
Mr Golden went back to transportation. Asking what ideas the candidates have on helping with congestion. Mr Betancourt said we need bike lanes and paths. Ms Brooks thinks we need more turn lanes. Ms Cheek said it needs study by professionals. Ms Smith said some extra turn signals would help. Mr Thompson said that timing the lights to help flow would be the easiest first place to start. That comment got a rare ovation. Mr Turner wants the Post Office moved and the State to improve State routes. He also blamed bad drivers for being part of the problem.
Mr Diaz then asked what ordinances need changing. Ms Brooks said she was unprepared to answer the question. Ms Cheek said that researching changes need to be done. She seems to be open to loosening some of the stricter food and alcohol ordinances. Ms Smith said we needed more enforcement. Mr Thompson said he wants to change what the citizens want changed. Mr Turner said change will happen. Mr Betancourt said changes happen but we need to study the changes more.
Mr Golden asks how the city and county could cooperate and even consolidate services. Ms Cheek feels it’s hard to separate the services but doesn’t feel there are many services with a conflict. More cooperation is needed over consolidation. Ms Smith discusses how the Red Rabbit brought both county and city together and everyone just hopped on to helping solve the issue of getting people where they needed to go. Mr Thompson has spoken with County Commissioners and feels like right now, the dialog is as open as it has ever been and we are at a point where the relationship between the county and the city has never been before which is in a good place. An outright consolidation would take a lot work, however. Mr Turner wishes the Housing Department could be consolidated with the county because the city department is miles ahead compared to the county’s housing department. Mr Turner may not realize the county does not have a separate housing department set up to supply housing to low income renters like the city does. Mr Betancourt says we need to look for better ways than what’s being approached now. Ms Brooks looks to economic development to help the two entities work together naturally. She doesn’t believe we are there yet (numbers wise) for consolidation.
Mr. Golden asks the candidates about racial concerns in our city. Ms Smith acknowledges the hot nature of the topic and she wants something done about it. All five wards need to come together on this national problem. She has a problem that she is pulled over on one road while another of a different race is not. Mr Thompson laments it is sad to see what’s happening nationally and as a local community we cannot tolerate it. He is 100% on board with praying about it and eradicating it. Mr Turner points out government has limits to work with the problem and calls on people to work on the issue. Mr Betancourt looks to other models that have been successful such as those in our churches. Ms Brooks hasn’t seen the abuse herself perhaps because she is a black female but she has not had a single bad experience with a Gainesville police officer and neither have any of her sons. She and her husband have taught their sons how to address and work with the police recognizing black males do have to approach and work with police in a different way. Ms Brooks says there is no substitute for community policing. Ms Cheek wants a community to embrace diversity but research shows it takes someone seven times being exposed to something different in order to accept it. This can be effectively done through cultural events on the Square and taking time to get to know others; with each one of us becoming a change agent.
In closing, Mr Thompson focused on his strength as a listener. Mr Turner focused on his retirement making him available to focus much more on the position than someone who has other projects to oversee. Mr Betancourt said Gainesville is going in a good direction. As the City changes we need to work together to progress. Ms Brooks thanked everyone for being here and said she’s ready to be the next Council member. Ms Cheek said she had time and is ready because she loves community service. Ms Smith said she’s in it to win it and thanked everyone for coming.
If you notice 2 different writing styles, I got help putting this together from my friend Amanda Swafford. I appreciate the help. It was hard to type fast and keep up with what was going on during the forum. This was certainly an exercise in speed with the number of candidates and the length of the forum. More info also on this Forum is in the Times.