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Wednesday, December 06, 2023
<p>An attendee at the forum listens to City Commission candidates speak.</p>

An attendee at the forum listens to City Commission candidates speak.

Local topics were at the forefront at a forum with candidates vying for a position on the city commission. 

The forum Tuesday evening hosted by the Alachua County Labor Coalition.

Five out of eight candidates, discussed issues such as living wage and affordable housing at the forum. Three candidates, Paul Rhodenizer, David Walle and Jennifer Reid did not show up to the forum. About 40 listened to the candidates at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, located at 1236 NW 34th St. 

Before the forum, candidates were sent questionnaires about local issues by the Alachua County Labor Coalition, said 33-year-old Jeremiah Tattersall, the coalition’s union liaison. The questionnaire was crafted by coalition members, and the forum questions were created by the coalition’s board. 

Candidate responses will be published in the organization’s February quarterly newsletter, he said.

The coalition does not and will not endorse candidates because of its status as a nonprofit, Tattersall said. The organization’s goal is simply to highlight issues important to its membership. 

“We want to influence elected officials, not get them elected,” he said.

Candidates discussed five topics based on the responses to the questionnaires.

University issues and remedies

To address the toll of UF on the Gainesville community, Reina Saco, Scherwin Henry, Harvey Ward, Gabe Kaimowitz and David Arreola discussed raising UF staff wages. 

Arreola believes addressing this issue requires more than increasing wages because UF needs to buy more energy from Gainesville Regional Utilities and rely on sustainable local food sources. 

Ward shared a similar viewpoint, but also added that he believes elected officials in Tallahassee are part of the problem because they don’t have “the best interest of this community at heart.”

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Kaimowitz said the city simply can’t partner with UF because he believes it’s “an oppressive, capitalistic institution.” 

Renter’s bill of rights proposal

All candidates agreed that a renter’s bill of rights would be a useful addition to Gainesville’s policy. 

Henry believes the proposal would simplify the traditional complex wording of a lease, thus giving renters enough information to make educated decisions. Ward also agrees, adding that it would ease those who might be “embarrassed and uncomfortable asking for clarification of their rights.”

Arreola and Saco focused on the proposal’s emphasis on safe and affordable housing. Saco referred to it as her “overdue baby” because of her role in the drafting process.

“I’m pretty sure I dream about this project,” she said.

Combating food deserts 

There was a lot of disagreement among candidates on how to best address food deserts, or areas lacking grocery stores or markets. 

Saco and Arreola both discussed expanding farmers’ markets and locally owned grocers to areas of Gainesville without them.

Ward said the issue of food deserts traces back to transportation, as those who cannot travel far miss out on fresh produce, and must be addressed through the expansion of “First Mile, Last Mile,” the micro transit system in east Gainesville. Henry believes there is an intersection between economic development and food solutions — introducing gardens on rooftops, for instance.

But Kaimowitz disagrees. He believes the issue lies in the lack of access to food stamps and other government programs. 

Living wages for all city employees

All candidates agreed on a living wage for city employees. However, there was disagreement on how that would be accomplished.

Ward and Arreola have been working on this proposal through the city commission, but have spent six months waiting for approval from the general and city manager. Ward believes two months after approval is given, the ordinance can be passed. Arreola said it should be sometime this year.

Saco believes it can be accomplished by the next budget but needs to employ a staggered approach to get to $15. Loopholes need to be closed for contractors, and money needs to flow back to the local economy. 

Henry, a former senior biological scientist at UF, believes this can be done this year, but goals need to be laid out with deadlines. 

“When I started at university, I was making $2.73 an hour in 1973. In today’s dollars, that equals to $18 an hour,” he said, adding that the standard of a living wage is not enough.

Affordable housing 

Arreola said the housing market is affected by luxury apartment complexes, which are unaffordable to most students and residents. He proposes that 20 percent of units must be affordable because developers are not going to stop building. 

Saco agrees, adding that developers will continue to build, even with restrictions, because there is a market in Gainesville as a “college town.”

Ward said the issue is an American city problem. He agrees with Arreola’s statement and believes the Florida legislature should stop misusing funds set aside for affordable housing.

While Kaimowitz believes there is no way to have affordable housing in Gainesville, Henry said that it simply needs to be located in places other than east Gainesville. 

Following the forum, community members spoke one-on-one to candidates. 

Mary Alford, a candidate for the District 1 seat of the Alachua County Commission, was in attendance at the Tuesday forum. She believes the topics were all relevant to the Gainesville community but was disappointed to see no enthusiasm for the renter’s rights proposal.

To Alford, 58, the most significant issue is having a living wage because it has the biggest impact on everyday people’s lives. She said most candidates recognize the problem and proposed ideas to address it, such as focusing on transit options.

“I know who I’m not voting for,” she said.

Contact Grethel Aguila at Follow her on Twitter @GrethelAguila. 

An attendee at the forum listens to City Commission candidates speak.

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