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Sunday, September 19, 2021

City Commission at-large 1 candidate Nathan Skop stood up, placed his right hand on his hip and told his fellow candidates he was an "energy policy expert."

Six of the seven other at-large 1 and District 1 candidates who were sitting on the panel sat back and scoffed.

"There are many experts on many things," Donna Lutz, another City Commission at-large 1 candidate said, as she leaned forward and turned her head toward Skop. "People here are saying they know everything, but they don't. No one does."

Tensions ran high Thursday afternoon as candidates discussed their final thoughts on the city's biomass contract, fiscal condition and job creation at a debate at Santa Fe College. The debate was the the last Gainesville City Commission candidate forum before election day Tuesday.

Santa Fe College Student Government and the SFC Office of Civic Engagement & Service hosted the event. Six of the eight at-large 1 candidates attended. James Ingle and Richard Selwach did not attend. All District 1 candidates attended except Ray Washington, who sent a representative in his place.

Candidates were allowed 30 seconds to combat each other's answers.

The first 45 minutes of the two-hour debate were spent talking about the city's biomass contract, a plan to get energy from a wood-burning power plant.

Skop reiterated his disapproval for the city's "disastrous" biomass contract, citing the fact that it would cost the city $3.1 billion and cause utility rates to skyrocket.

Lutz rolled her eyes. At-large 1 candidates Lauren Poe and Darlene Pifalo and District 1 candidate Yvonne Hinson-Rawls smirked and sat back in their chairs.

Poe said abandoning the project would cost the city about $150 million. Backing out of the contract would also look bad to those looking to bring business to the city.

"Who is going to want to do business with a city that breaks its contracts?" Poe asked.

Pifalo said she was skeptical of the contract because the current commission has been so secretive about the details.

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Everyone remained calm when the candidates were asked about the city's fiscal policy. Every candidate agreed money wasn't being allocated properly.

District 1 candidate Armando Grundy said more money should be put toward resurfacing Gainesville's aging roads and water systems, especially in East Gainesville.

But when the issue of job creation arose, the snarling began again.

Poe said the city's innovation initiatives will be key to job creation. Skop and Cain were quick to counter.

"I hear all of this Innovation Hub, Innovation Hub talk and absolutely no talk about Plan East Gainesville," at-large 1 candidate Dejeon Cain shouted while he waved his hands over his head. "Once again, you're completely forgetting about East Gainesville."

Cain said East Gainesville has been left out of the city's innovation projects.

Poe then corrected Cain.

Innovation Hub is different from Innovation Gainesville, Poe said.

Innovation Hub is a building, he said. Innovation Gainesville, to which Poe was referring, is an idea that encompasses the whole city, including East Gainesville.

Cain, brow furrowed, shook his head and laughed.

Hinson-Rawls, Grundy, Lutz, Pifalo and at-large 1 candidate Mark Venzke agreed the city needed better mentoring and training programs.

"We need business training programs for the younger population, like junior achievement programs," Venzke said.

The last 10 minutes of the debate were allotted for candidates to ask questions of one another.

Most of the questions were directed at Poe, because he supported the biomass contract when he was a city commissioner.

"The bottom line," Poe said, "is that any other alternative to the contract would be a disaster for this city."

Lutz changed the subject and asked Skop why, if he was such an expert, he was not reappointed to the Florida Public Service Commission, on which he formerly worked.

Smirking and taking a sip of his water, Skop stood to answer the question.

He said the state legislature did not reappoint him because he had a hand in denying what would have been the "largest unjustified rate increase in Florida's history."

At the end of the debate, each candidate expressed how great it was that Santa Fe College hosted a debate.

"Though this was great," Venzke said, "it was too short a time to get to the bottom of all of these deep issues."

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