Mayoral candidates Ed Bielarski and Harvey Ward went head-to-head over issues like utility rates, affordable housing and gun violence during a debate Tuesday night.
Because neither Ward nor Bielarski secured a majority of votes cast in the Aug. 23 primary election, both candidates will compete in a run-off for the seat in the Nov. 8 general election.
Ward, who previously served as the District 2 commissioner since 2017, received 27.94% of the votes — more than 300 more votes than his opponent. Bielarski, a former Gainesville Regional Utilities general manager — whose contentious firing Ward proposed a motion for and approved — secured 26.43% of the votes.
About 70 residents attended the event, which local news outlets The Gainesville Sun and WUFT partnered to host at UF’s Levin College of Law. The Gainesville Sun’s Editorial Board endorsed Ward for the mayoral seat July 24.
Ward is experienced in institutional fundraising and nonprofit management, including working at WUFT-TV and WUFT-FM for nearly a decade.
Bielarski, a Gainesville resident of seven years, served as the GRU general manager from 2015 until his firing in January. Following the termination of his contract, Bielarski filed to run for the mayoral seat.
Candidates discussed issues that involved utility rates, affordable housing, citywide zoning changes, gun violence and UF’s presidential search during the hourlong debate.
Heather Van Blokland, WUFT’s executive producer and host, introduced the candidates to the crowd. A panel, including WUFT and Sun reporters Nathan Crabbe, Kendall Brant, Javon Harriss and Maria Victoria Camacho, posed questions to Bielarski and Ward. The two candidates also prepared questions for each other..
The night ended early for some residents, who left early due to poor audio. Some residents said they couldn’t hear the candidates’ comments because the reverberation from the microphones made it difficult to hear.
Bielarski said he’s focused on offering affordable renewable energy to residents, decreasing city spending and fixing GRU’s excess general fund transfer — the amount of money moved from GRU to the city’s general fund to support city services, like the police and fire rescue.
Making homes more energy efficient by improving window air conditioning units would reduce utility rates, Ward said. He mentioned looking at funds, like the Connect Free program, to help residents pay bills.
The candidates also discussed the Gainesville City Commission’s recent controversial elimination of single-family zoning. Ward and Bielarski both oppose the vote and expressed commitment to overturn the decision during the debate.
“The war on single family home zoning is changing people's lives,” Bielarski said. “It's going to put the poorest of our communities at more risk than they are now.”
They both agreed to focus on protections like urban land trusts, which are land owned by nonprofits to build homes for lower income families.
“Land trusts are a great way to take the profit out of the developers hands in terms of the land itself,” Bielarski said.
Gun violence was another topic of debate. To curb gun violence, Ward said he would work closely with Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
“It's a regional impact,” Ward said. “It has to have a regional solution.”
Gun violence stems from issues with mental health and supply, Bielarski said, as well as guns entering from outside the city.
Both candidates also responded to UF’s announcement of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, as the sole finalist in its presidential search.
Ward was troubled by the selection process, he said, and emphasized his relationship with the presumptive presidential pick depends on how his policies will impact the community.
“I'm hopeful that his actual policies do not harm reproductive rights in our community, that they do not actually harm LGBT rights in our community,” he said. “If he harms those rights that we all take for granted, we won't get along very well.”
Bielarski shared Ward’s apprehension about the search’s transparency and said he hopes Sasse adjusts to Gainesville.
“I think Gainesville grows on you,” he said. “I couldn't think about living any other place but here, so I hope that goes for Sasse and his adjustment to a place other than the Midwest in Nebraska.”
As the debate concluded, the audience solidified their final mayoral pick.
Chris Floid, a 50-year-old Gainesville resident, said the debate confirmed his choice for mayor.
He raised concerns about the amount of transfer to the general fund from GRU and said Ward’s solution seemed balanced with reducing the transfer and also anticipating increased revenues whereas Bielarski’s solution would involve drastic cuts.
“It seems like Harvey is running for Gainesville mayor,” he said. “It seems like Ed is running against Harvey, his former boss.”
Erin Silverman, a 46-year-old Gainesville resident, said she came into the debate knowing who she was going to support and left the debate certain of her mayoral pick. Silverman supported Ward and will continue to do so, she said.
WUFT-TV will broadcast the debate Oct. 28 at 8:30 p.m., Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.
Registered voters can vote early at seven Alachua County polling locations until Nov. 5 and at the Supervisor of Elections Office only Nov. 6. Voters must vote at their designated precinct if they choose to vote on election day Nov. 8.
Contact Mickenzie Hannon at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MickenzieHannon.
Mickenzie is the local elections reporter and previously covered city and county commission for The Alligator’s Metro Desk. She's a fourth-year journalism major and is specializing in data journalism. When Mickenzie isn’t writing, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, playing with her pets and attending concerts.