City Council Hopefuls Sell Themselves at Final Forum
By Fred Hamilton and Jason Schwartz
BOCA RATON – As the three candidates enter their final stretch in the race for the vacant seat on the City Council, they put aside their barbs Wednesday night and shared their views during the final candidate forum.
Unlike the campaign, the event at the Wayne Barton Study Center was done in an exchange that was civil and mostly free of personal attacks. And while they may agree broadly on esthetics, height and density, there was some obvious differences between the candidates.
A few voters thought some of the candidates’ – all political newcomers – answers lacked depth and showed their inexperience.
“I’m glad it was not this back and forth, knock out, mud-slinging that we have been seeing in the [campaign] mailers,” said Kevin Sharpe, a retired political science professor who has been following city elections since the 1970s.
“As expected, [Frank] Chapman was forceful and had somewhat of a tame bull-in-a-china-shop attitude,” Sharpe said. “He slid in a few subtle stabs at [his opponents] by saying he did not use clichés and sound-bites. [Jeremy] Rodgers’ showed depth and his responses were well thought through, and [Jamie] Sauer’s answers often were predictive and lacked substance.”
Each candidate was given five minutes to make an opening statement, followed by six questions, which were selected from a pool submitted by readers, voters and taxpayers. Candidates were given two minutes to respond to each question, and made a five-minute closing statement.
Moderator C. Ron Allen, editor of the Boca Raton Tribune, which hosted the forum, asked the candidates a range of questions including development downtown, traffic congestion and the city’s pension program.
“It is our hope that this historic program will help the voters get a fuller understanding of the issues facing our city today and that on Election Day, March 10, you will vote for the candidate of your choice,” Allen told the audience of about 50 people.
Council members are elected by all Boca Raton voters to designated seats on a non-partisan basis.
The candidates spoke eloquently on hot-button issues such as traffic congestion and growth downtown. However, when asked, “How they would address the overall ramifications should Office Depot relocate its headquarters from Boca Raton to Massachusetts?” and “How would they propose making the City’s pension program sound?” their responses lacked specifics.
“Only one person said what they would or could do to stop Office Depot from packing up and moving out of town,” Elaine Singer said. “I would have liked to hear more about what they would do once they are elected to keep the company here or keep some of the jobs here.”
All praised the police and fire fighters for providing excellent service and their unions for meeting with city officials to reach a deal. They however did not address their long-term plan to ensure the deferred retirement option program (DROP) remains safe and secure, Sharpe and Singer said.
All across the country, the DROP, which that lets city’s police officers and firefighters stay on the job and grow a tidy retirement nest egg has put several police and fire pension system on the road to financial disaster.
City leaders maintain that Boca Raton is in excellent financial condition, given its reserves and triple A bond rating, therefore the pension system is sustainable.
All three candidates want to preserve the quiet, single-family charm and flavor of Boca Raton. They fear allowing buildings taller than 100 feet (nine or 10 stories) downtown would not be in the best interest of the city and the public.
And while they support new development because it will bring new business to the city, they worry that traffic congestion and parking problems is part of the package.
Developers of at least four luxury condo buildings have asked the city to loosen its height restrictions for downtown skyline. Under temporary rules, the city is allowing builders to construct taller buildings downtown if certain design guidelines are met.
Rodgers calls the height variance a “corporate bailout.”
“It’s cronyism,” he said. “They bought land at the wrong time for too much and now they’re looking for a handout (meaning height). It’s not something we want to be involved in.”
Sauer too said she is “very concerned” about height and density, especially downtown.
“If we are going to grow, we need to grow responsibly, carefully and intelligently,” she said. “We need to make sure we protect the character of our city. This is very, very important to me.”
Chapman, a retired lawyer, said he is “disgusted” by the deals being made between council members and developers and other big donors.
A close examination of some candidates’ campaign finance reports would show influencers such as land developers and attorneys turning over “seven checks of $500 or even $1,000” to the candidates’ coffers, he said.
“When you put that money all together, that money has strings,” he said. “When you look at the fact that some of the people on the council want to run for something else later, it makes it very difficult for them to make decisions for what we really want for the community.”