It was standing room only Friday at the first public debate between all four Winter Park City Commission candidates, with more than 150 people watching two candidates shoot small barbs at each other.
Scott Callahan and Steve Leary are squaring off for the seat vacated by Phil Anderson; Bonnie Jackson and Sarah Sprinkel are vying for the seat vacated by Beth Dillaha.
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce President Patrick Chapin said that most of the forums are attended by regulars who tend to come from one of two camps. This Friday’s debate, though, was different.
“Usually it’s real specific camps and real divided, and everyone who shows up knows who they’re voting for,” Chapin said. “I felt like there were a lot of faces I didn’t recognize, and I like to believe there were some people trying to understand the candidates and their issues and who to vote for.”
Several of the questions at Friday’s event centered on toning down the political rhetoric in light of the shootings in Tucson in January that left a congresswoman wounded and six dead. Ironically, though, Leary and Callahan sparred tit-for-tat several times, with Leary only barely stopping short of calling Callahan a liar.
After answering an unrelated question, Leary, unsolicited, said that people may have heard that he wants to overturn the supermajority lock on the city’s comprehensive plan. He said if anyone says that, tell them they’re a liar.
That, in turn, caused Callahan to ignore a question the next round.
“I never said I have an intention of overturning it,” Leary said after the forum. “I get a little ticked off when people lie about what I said. We talk about having a civil discourse. Here’s a place to start: Don’t lie about what I said. You better back it up if you’re going to accuse me of something. It’s the Irish in me, I guess.”
The mini-controversy stems from an Orlando Sentinel editorial board interview where Leary was asked if the city was doing a good job of respecting the charter. Leary said they were, but later said he wasn’t in favor of the supermajority. Callahan then said that it sounds like Leary wants to overturn the supermajority.
“He made his point; I made my point, I think,” Callahan said. “Those are essentially the facts, they stick to themselves.”
Both Callahan and Leary directed voters to the taped Sentinel interview, available online.
Sprinkel v. Jackson
Between Sprinkel and Jackson, the pair didn’t differ too significantly on answers to the questions. They do, however, vary wildly in personalities.
Sprinkel was the only candidate who stood up to answer every question, at one point mentioning that your brain works better when you’re standing. She was lively and personified, and often making jokes. Jackson, by contrast, often spoke using specific figures and numbers.
“I look out here today and see people,” Sprinkel said. “I decided that if I asked you to vote for me, you’d have a hard time saying no because you know me for what I am. … If I can’t ask you to vote for someone else, I figured I’d ask you to vote for me.”
“Who needs coffee when you have a shot of Sprinkel in the morning,” Leary later said to laughter.
The forum lasted more than an hour and featured questions from the Chamber and questions from the audience. Some were directed at two candidates and some to all four.
“I was really pleased with the turnout, and I was quite impressed with the level of comfort,” Chapin said. “The candidates were very at ease and knowledgeable. Considering this was their first (public) debate, I thought they did a remarkable job.”
Here’s a selection of some of the responses, in no particular order.
The city is facing serious revenue challenges. What revenues would you increase, and what expenses would you decrease?
“Instead of going across the board, I’d rather look at a zero-based budgeting system.”
BONNIE JACKSON: (After mentioning the drop in different revenues and the city’s pension problems)
“We need to start making some changes. One of the changes we can make is following the recommendation of [the city’s pension consultant]. It’s not about raising more money. I can commit to you that I will never raise taxes in Winter Park. And we have to focus on infrastructure. That’s the city’s No. 1 priority — leave a foundation for when the economy turns around.”
After the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, do you believe the tone of the current political rhetoric needs to be toned down? And if so, what would you do?
“The civil discourse, or uncivil discourse, in this community has been going on for far too long. Friendships have ended as a result. It’s inappropriate. The Commission has an obligation to set the tone. We can disagree. We can ever argue with what’s right and what’s wrong. But we have an obligation. We have to behave civilly if we expect our citizens to behave civilly.”
STEVE LEARY: (saying that respect will trickle down)
“It does start up there (on the Commission) and it starts with leadership. It’s getting people in place who will not only listen but hear what people are saying. It sounds like a big problem, but the solution is simple: Start being nicer. It’s as simple as that.
Two more candidate forums:
The Winter Park Good Government Group presents a City Commission Candidates Forum from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, in the Commission Chambers. It will be broadcast live on CityOfWinterPark.org.
For more information, call 407-644-9039.
The City Commission Candidate Forum is at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Winter Park Public Library, 460 E. New England Ave. Contact 407-623-3300 or email@example.com