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Gainesville council candidates share thoughts on transportation, taxes, voting districts

Nov. 3 election will replace two longtime council members

POSTED: September 24, 2015 10:30 p.m.

Gainesville City Council Candidates Forum: At-large voting

Gainesville City Council candidates discuss their views on at-large voting.

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ERIN O. SMITH/The Times

Zack Thompson and Lemuel Betancourt listen as Emory Turner, center, says his closing statements during a debate put on by the Democratic party at the Gainesville Civic Center for Gainesville City Council candidates on Thursday, September 24, 2015.

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It was seen as a win for the city of Gainesville.

Candidates in this year’s City Council races for Ward 2 (Emory Turner and Zack Thompson) and Ward 3 (Montine Whelchel Smith, Andrè Cheek, Lemuel Betancourt and Barbara Brooks) gathered for a forum at the Civic Center Thursday night to debate the issues on voters’ minds ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

With two competitive races this year, the candidate forum, hosted by the Hall County Democratic Party, was a small measure of progress for a city where voter apathy has become pronounced, candidates said.

While the candidates expressed similar positions and feelings with regard to improving race relations, generally opposing consolidation of local governments, growing new businesses and jobs while balancing quality of life concerns, and the need to review city laws and make changes with the times, other issues drew lines between them.

Transportation

Anyone who travels through downtown Gainesville during rush hour knows just how frustrating the snarled traffic can be.

While money is always an issue when it comes to widening roads and alleviating congestion, the candidates took a few different approaches to the issue.

For example, Smith and Cheek said they feared what road expansions would mean for residential neighborhoods.

Betancourt called for bike lanes.

Thompson said he would like to see traffic lights better timed to reduce traffic congestion.

Brooks advocated for more turn lanes to be constructed, particularly around the downtown core.

But Turner pointed out that many of the roads in Gainesville that are most heavily traveled are state routes, such as Green Street, which inhibits the city’s ability to make changes.

Taxes

“Who wants their taxes raised? Nobody,” Cheek said, adding that there is a need to maintain a balanced budget.

Taxes are always a contentious point. The City Council just approved a slight increase in property taxes earlier this month, though two more public hearings are scheduled for October before the change takes effect.

Brooks said she supports the council’s 4-2 vote to slightly raise taxes to help pay off debt on the city jail.

“I like it that we take a conservative approach,” she added.

Thompson said transparency is the key for government to ensure trust with its citizens, and that extends most importantly to taxes.

Turner said educating the public about where every penny is spent also helps instill trust.

Smith said she wanted to remove the burden of local taxes on financially vulnerable groups.

“I don’t believe it should be a burden on the elderly and veterans,” she added.  

While no one likes taxes, Betancourt said he believed it’s important to maintain service levels.

Voting

While the city school board and Hall County Board of Commissioners are elected by district, City Council members are elected “at-large,” meaning every voter, regardless of where they live, casts ballots in all races.

Proponents of district voting, however, believe it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council because only voters in a particular geographic area would be allowed to select a candidate from their ward to represent them.

Some candidates shied away from the debate that has become contentious in recent months, and others left nothing uncertain.

“I think we should ask the voters,” Betancourt said, adding that a voter referendum is the best way to decide the debate.

Smith said she supports citywide voting. And Cheek said she recognized that if other local agencies and governments can implement district voting, so too can the City Council.  

Turner said he is more concerned about improving voter turnout than changing the way elections are held.

Brooks said she will work in either system, though she appreciates that residents can have access to all councilmembers.

“I’m open-minded,” she added.

Finally, Thompson said a day is coming when the change will be made, but that day has not yet come.

“I don’t think the city is ready,” for district voting, he added.  

Opening and Closing

In opening and closing remarks, candidates made their appeals to the audience.

Thompson made the case that he can be the face of a new generation of leaders.

As a small business owner, “I am entrenched” in the community, he said.

Turner said he has no other obligations if elected, and will serve as if it’s a full-time job.

“My heart and all my time will be devoted to the citizens of Gainesville.”

Betancourt said he believes the city has progressed a great deal in recent years, but he urged residents to find common ground rather than exploiting differences.

“I came here under the promise that this is a great city,” he added.

Brooks said she has no agenda other than to serve the interests of residents citywide.

Cheek said she is committed to being prepared and educating herself about all the issues residents face, and that while she has “big shoes to fill … I am up for the challenge”

And Smith called on “we the people” as her mantra for governing.

“I just want to do what I can to serve the people of this great city,” she said. 

Candidates speak

Zack Thompson

“Government needs to listen to its citizens.”

Emory Turner

“My heart and all my time will be devoted to the citizens of Gainesville.”

Lemuel Betancourt

“There’s no community if we don’t have something in common.”

Barbara Brooks

“I’m ready. I am not going to sit still. I’m a mover.”

Andrè Cheek

“If somebody were to ask me why you do it? It’s just in me. I look forward to the work ahead.”

Montine Whelchel Smith

“We the people need the City Council to help us see what we need.”

 



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