Only three out of the four mayoral candidates attended the first mayoral debate of the election season Monday night.
About 60 people went to the Rion Ballroom in the Reitz Union to hear Mayor Lauren Poe, Jenn Powell and Marlon Bruce debate on topics such as affordable housing and education. UF College Democrats monitored the event and developed the questions asked. Jennifer Reid, the fourth candidate, declined the invitation to join, said Kristen Jackson, the College Democrats president. Reid could not be immediately reached for comment.
Gators Vote Everywhere, Gators for Underrepresented Voters, Students for the New Urbanism at UF and Democracy Matters UF all co-sponsored the event.
The debate came two weeks before voter registration closes on Feb. 19 for the Gainesville regular election on March 19.
R. Matthew Barocas, the 19-year-old treasurer of College Democrats, monitored the debate and asked the candidates nine questions covering topics including experience, UF relations and Gainesville Regional Utilities before the audience asked questions.
Affordable housing caused the most discussion between the candidates.
Poe spoke on how affordable housing is an issue the commission is currently addressing. The commission will be hosting the first of many affordable housing summits at the Thelma Boltin Center, 516 NE 2 Ave, Gainesville, on Feb. 20.
“If this was an easy solution, then every city facing affordable housing crisis would have figured it out,” he said. “There's no silver bullet.”
Powell, a 40-year-old part-time legal assistant, challenged Poe by asking him why he hasn’t solved the affordable housing issue if he has been in office for 10 years. Poe served as a city commissioner for six years, a year as mayor-commissioner pro tem and then the last three years as mayor.
“You seem to be on the right track,” Powell said to Poe about his affordable housing efforts. “What is holding you back?”
Poe did not respond.
The youngest candidate at 20 years old, Santa Fe College student Bruce said one way to fix the affordable housing problem is to bring down the cost of development.
Gainesville’s affordability in housing and living was also discussed.
Powell said she wants to go through the city budget to find where to make cuts so bus drivers and police officers can receive pay that will allow them to afford to live in the city. The current wages of bus drivers have them leaving to better paying cities, she said.
Gainesville Police officers' minimum entry salaries, which is about $41,939, is the highest in surrounding county departments, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement 2017 Criminal Justice Agency report. When compared to 85 similar-sized departments in Florida, it ranks 36th.
Bruce agreed that money must be found to keep bus drivers in Gainesville.
About 30 minutes into the debate, Powell said she wanted the crowd to know that a city commissioner helped write the questions, which helped Poe answer them.
However, Jackson said that wasn’t the case and she was upset to hear Powell’s comment. A committee of the students from the sponsoring organizations spent more than 10 hours writing the nine questions to ensure they were insightful and fair, she said. College Democrats reached out to City Commissioner David Arreola to clarify the mayor’s responsibilities.
The audience-submitted questions included topics about race arrests for cannabis, a living wage and the recent ordinance banning plastic.
On Jan. 17, the city commission voted unanimously to pass the ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags and foam containers in Gainesville. It will go into effect Aug. 1.
Poe said he was proud of the community effort to be more sustainable and agreed with the year and a half of work to pass the plastic ordinance.
Powell and Bruce both showed opposition to the ban.
“By pushing through a ban on plastics, we are taking that time away from the issues that actually are facing people in our community,” Powell said.
Although Bruce agreed with the ban, he said part of the ordinance needs to be changed. He said he would alter the ordinance to include an opt-out option.
“Now we’re stuck with an ordinance that may end up hurting businesses,” Bruce said.
In the candidates closing remarks, they reiterated their platform one more time and hoped to have the opportunity to serve the community as mayor.
“We are the ones willing to tackle the tough issues,” Poe said. “We're not willing to sort of hide behind our laurels and wait for other communities to to take the first hard steps. We're willing to be the leaders and and you all should be proud of that.”