SEBASTIAN — Nine candidates vying for votes in the Primary and General elections made their last public pitch for votes at the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum Thursday night.
Questions, put forth by business and community leaders, ranged from where candidates stand on issues pertaining to utilities – including the potential sale of Vero Beach’s electric system – and environmental cleanup to how they would go about improving transportation throughout the county. Five of the nine candidates will be facing off in the Republican Primary on Aug. 24 for two seats on the commission. Those seats are District 2, held by incumbent Joe Flescher, and District 4, held by incumbent Peter O’Bryan.
Flescher faces a Republican challenge in former Sebastian City Councilwoman Dale Simchick and former Vero Beach City Councilman Charlie Wilson. O’Bryan will face former County Commissioner Tom Lowther.
The winners of the Republican Primary will face Democratic and Independent challengers in the November General Election. For District 2, Independent Carolyn Corum and Democrat David Snell are running. Democrat Steven Deardeuff and Kenneth Holmes, who has no party affiliation, are seeking the District 4 seat.
Candidates were asked a series of five questions, which were different for each person and were randomly assigned in an effort to promote fairness, according to Chamber Executive Director Beth Mitchell.
Commissioner Flescher led off the evening with the first set of questions, which ranged from his motivations for running for office and what he wants to accomplish to what his thoughts are on the future long-term water needs of the county.
“What is your position on impact fees and how would you determine whether impact fees should be increased or decreased?” moderator Rene Van deVoorde asked the incumbent.
Flescher said that the current commission has had “great discussion” about the issue and explained that impact fees are used to offset the impact newcomers – be they residents or businesses – would have on the surrounding area.
“We can’t have high impact fees” as the Indian River Neighborhood Association has asked for, Flescher said. “We need to keep them as low as possible” and embrace positive growth in the county.
District 4 candidate Holmes, running without party affiliation was asked what his top three issues are in the county.
He said the big three issues include finding ways to bring jobs to the area, pursuing more green technology within county buildings, and maintaining and improving the county’s infrastructure to help people get where they need to go.
“The Emergency Services budget has continued to be a problem for the county,” moderator Van deVoorde said. “What do you think the County should do to help control costs in this area without hurting service delivery?”
Holmes said that the residents of Indian River County have grown accustomed to having great services – but they have to pay for those services.
“We are going to have to be taxed” to keep that level of service, the candidate said.
Commissioner O’Bryan was asked about his position on the beach restoration project.
“Beaches are a critical part of our infrastructure,” O’Bryan said, noting that tourism is the one economic driver in the county that is still working.
He added that there would be no way he would abandon that piece of the county’s economy.
Democrat District 4 candidate Snell was asked about his position on the potential increasing of the county’s gas tax to raise revenue.
“Saying ‘no’ is no longer an option,” Snell began his comments, then added that the country needs to get back to its entrepreneurial spirit of the 1940s, as well as get the “parasites out of office.”
By the end of his two-minute time allotment, Snell said that he does not support increasing the gas tax.
“People don’t have it,” he said.
Republican-turned-Independent candidate Corum’s questions ranged from her position on the county privatizing certain services and addressing urban sprawl to eco-tourism and support of passenger rail.
After commenting about the importance of having transportation available to seniors, Corum said that she would support passenger rail, so long as the fares were cheap.
“That’s wonderful,” she said of rail service, explaining that she was born in New York and took the trains everywhere.
Former Vero Beach City Councilman Charlie Wilson was asked questions about his ability to build consensus amongst board members, his stance on raising property taxes, and promoting business recycling.
“What do you think the relationship should be between the county and the municipalities in managing water, sewer, water and electricity?” Van deVoorde asked Wilson, opening the door for the candidate to talk about selling Vero Beach’s electric utility.
Wilson said that the County Commission represents 40,000 Vero Beach electric customers who don’t live in the city.
“It is our business,” he said, explaining that only the County Commission can push the Florida Public Service Commission to change the city’s electric territory to remove the unincorporated areas of the county from the city’s grid.
He also said that the county should consider a regional water and sewer service, noting that there’s “no reason” not to have a regional system.
Former County Commissioner Tom Lowther was asked about his thoughts on the county’s biggest assets and faults, his position on Amendment 4 – Hometown Democracy – and emergency services.
“How can the County have a positive impact on existing businesses to keep them here, and encourage them to expand?” asked moderator Van deVoorde.
As a business owner, Lowther said he’d love to have his property taxes frozen – if the tax abatement referendum passes in November – and he’d love to have his impact fees cut. But, he said, that is not enough.
“I think we need to have a warm and fuzzy feeling” from the county – and the cities.
Democrat District 4 candidate Deardeuff was asked to say something positive about one of the other candidates, his thoughts on how the county should or could utilize federal stimulus funds, and transportation issues.
“The County and the Municipalities have been working on an inter local service boundary agreement (ISBA) for a number of years,” Van deVoorde said. “What are your thoughts on this process and what do you think should happen with this agreement?” “You should certainly work together,” Deardeuff said, adding that the governments should look at ways to cut down on the duplication of services by considering combining some services.
Former Sebastian Councilwoman Simchick was the last to answer a series of questions – and was tasked with answering one about the Archie Smith Fish House.
“The hottest topic in town,” Simchick said once moderator Van deVoorde asked what opportunities there are for the City of Sebastian and the county to work together to preserve the historic property.
Simchick said that the opportunities are there for cooperation but that she would not support the City of Sebastian taking on the burden of expensive reconstruction.
“The county bought (the property) in good faith,” she said, and as such is responsible for the site. How and when renovations could happen would be dictated by the economy, Simchick added.
This was the first time the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce has been able to put on a County Commission-level candidate forum. The first one was rained out with Tropical Storm Faye blew through the area.
The Chamber has hosted candidate forums for the Sebastian City Council municipal elections.