Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler feels ready to be at the helm of the County Commission.
Wheeler won her seat on the County Commission in 2018 and is now entering the fourth and final year of her term as commissioner after being appointed to chair on Nov. 9. Commissioners will serve as the chair at some point before their term ends, said Wheeler, who served as vice-chair last year.
“It puts me directly on the front line,” she said. “At the point of the spear, so to speak.”
Wheeler has been a public school teacher for about 36 years, 22 of which she taught middle school in Gainesville. She said her experience in public education fueled her desire to pursue educational reform like improving standardized testing.
She’s been politically active for 15 years. During that time, she addressed issues pertaining to the environment, public education and immigration, and made a point to partner with water conservation and preservation groups. Wheeler also ran campaigns since 2010 as a former candidate for the Florida House and Congress.
A primary concern for Wheeler has been land conservation and ensuring public access to it. In 2017, Wheeler worked with the county and the Wild Spaces and Public Places initiative to purchase YMCA Camp McConnell in Micanopy. The County Commission turned down an offer from Gator Water Polo to purchase the land in Micanopy and has decided to keep it for itself for now.
The location has provided free summer camp for local children, and it will soon be open to the public once renovations are finished.
In addition, Wheeler has been working on water preservation projects throughout Alachua County.
Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she shares Wheeler’s passion for saving the environment.
“Natural resources and our water are critical to our daily life, and they're critical to the beauty of our county,” she said. “I'm thrilled that it's such a priority for her, and I think it's a priority for all of our commissioners.”
Prizzia said Wheeler is devoted to making a difference.
“I think she'll be a great chair,” she said. “She really cares deeply about the community, particularly our small cities and our outlying areas. I think her heart and her spirit are going to be great.”
Using some of the funds from the Recovery Act, Wheeler said she will prioritize making broadband internet accessible to everyone, not only in Alachua County but also in outlying counties. She also wants to bolster low-cost housing options.
Above all, Wheeler said she’s looking forward to ushering in new growth to Alachua County following COVID-19 pandemic challenges.
“I'm seeing it as a great year of opportunity to tell you the truth, and I'm excited to be chair of the board at a time when we are in recovery,” she said. “We got a lot of planning and a lot of work to do, but hopefully it'll be careful planning and that we do this right.”
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Bryce Brown is a third-year journalism major and copy editor for The Alligator. He has previously worked as a metro general assignment reporter on the Metro desk and as staff writer for The Avenue. When he's not fretting over deadlines, you can find him drinking copious amounts of black iced coffee and listening to Lana Del Rey.