About 125 members of the Gainesville community gathered at Springhill Missionary Baptist Church Thursday night to listen to city commission run-off candidates Annie Orlando and Helen Warren debate issues facing the community.
As many in the crowd noted, the room was dived wedding-style with Warren supporters on the left and Orlando’s fans on the right.
The discussion was moderated by The Gainesville Sun’s editorial page editor Nathan Crabbe. Crabbe was faced with the task of questioning the candidates and monitoring their responses as well as the crowd’s. The audience responded heatedly to some of the candidates’ comments and statements, beginning with the opening statements.
“It’s easy to be a back-porch politician and talk about how to solve problems,” Warren said.
Orlando rebutted by noting she had only seen Warren at one recent commission meeting.
“We have an opportunity to engage this community in the recognition that we’re meeting some challenges that we haven’t dealt with before,” Warren said. “Now, how do we have that conversation?”
In retort, Orlando said, “I’m glad that Helen finally wants to have a conversation because for many years, activist citizens have gone to the city commission…and over and over again, we have had the door slammed in our faces by her (Warren’s) friends… People are tired of it.”
The candidates found themselves in further disagreement over the issues and at times struggled to find clear positions.
The issue of reform within Gainesville Regional Utilities sparked the most conversation among candidates and audience members alike.
Orlando voiced concern over the general manager position, which she believes immediately requires a new hire, among other managerial changes.
To lower utility rates, Warren offered up the idea of broadening GRU’s customer base.
“We need to get more people buying into the pie,” Warren said.
The Gainesville Region/Alachua County Empowerment for the Homeless (GRACE) and the possibility of required background checks for all adults in need of the center’s services was another hotly contested topic posed by Crabbe.
Warren said requiring checks for all homeless who seek out GRACE’s services is unfair. She believes the focus needs to be on making the programs and services worthwhile. She argues getting someone to come in is one thing, but it’s another thing to provide he or she with a quality experience.
“You can pull the bus up, but you can’t make the person get on,” Warren said.
The location of GRACE on NE 39th Avenue was noted as a challenge. It’s location is not convenient for members of the population in need, who spend many of their days in the area around downtown Gainesville.
Orlando disagreed, saying the background checks were part of a responsibility to create a balanced and safe environment for everyone at the center. Her focus was centered around the concerns raised over the potential separation of families due to an adult-only guest restriction.
Both candidates were given about two minutes for closing statements, a time suggestion they both veered away from.
After the debate, Warren said she felt sidelined at times durring the discussion.
“I really did feel like I was on the outside of the living room coffee table many times,” Warren said. “But I think we had a good opportunity to address many of the issues, so that was pretty good.”
Orlando on the other hand was happy with how the forum ran.
“I like this kind of format,” Orlando said. “You get to have your soapbox and debate. I was always a pontificator.”