The Gainesville City Commission met Thursday with one member sick at home with COVID-19 and another on her way out of office.
Mayor Lauren Poe opened the meeting wishing Commissioner David Arreola, who was not in attendance, a speedy recovery. Commissioner Gail Johnson attended, despite having announced that Aug. 23 would be her last meeting.
The commission voted to hold a special election on Nov. 16 to determine Johnson’s successor – and to pay the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office $200,000 to cover the costs. It also discussed how to give needy residents money through the federal American Rescue Plan.
Johnson intends to vacate her at-large position on Oct. 1, after citing the commission’s decision to retain Lee Feldman as city manager as a primary reason for leaving. She said she would turn in her official letter of resignation by the end of the night, “as long as there is a notary somewhere in the building.”
County Elections Supervisor Kim Barton told the commission the short window of time for the special election would be a big hurdle to clear.
“This has definitely caught us by surprise,” Barton said. “It takes a lot of planning for elections – and forethought.”
County elections staff normally begin working 120 days before an election day, but the special election in November would cut this time in half, she said. City law, however, requires an election to be held within 60 days of a vacancy on the commission.
Barton cited a number of concerns about the timeline. They include how the minimum wage set to rise on Sept. 30 could affect the county’s ability to get enlist poll workers, as well as uncertainty about what polling places will be available for use, she said.
Another hinderance: The loss of Will Boyett, the elections office’ chief deputy who died in May.
“But elections is what we do,” Barton said. “We’re up for the challenge.”
Barton said her office would likely have to combine some adjacent precincts, which would cut early voting sites to just two locations: the elections office and Millhopper Branch Library.
Gainesville’s general election in March had four early polling locations, with one in the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center in East Gainesville. When Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker expressed concern that the area would not have such a location, Barton said just 55 voters cast their ballots early at the MLK Center in March, a decrease from 124 in 2019.
Because the center is less than two miles from the elections office, Barton said the cost of creating an additional polling location was not worthwhile.
She asked the commission to approve a winner-take-all vote for this election, and thus do away with a run-off should no candidate win more than 50% of the vote.
“We won’t get any time off,” Barton said. “If it’s a run-off, we’ll be working all the way through December.”
Poe shot down the idea.
“It’s important that whoever wins receives a majority vote of the people they’re going to serve,” he said.
In May, the commission opened public involvement in the expenditure of $34 million in federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act to local non-profit organizations.
Zeriah Folston, the city’s new interim director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the two-week window for community members to submit their ideas was not enough time. Even though the city has already received proposals from 14 organizations and individuals, Folston said, the city still lacks a formal application for community members to submit their funding requests.
“I think we need to be more clear for them so they understand what they’re getting into when they take this money from us,” he said.
Folston asked the commission to allow him and his staff enough time to create the application before presenting it for the panel’s review at its Oct. 21 meeting.
At Poe’s urging, the commission voted to schedule a special meeting to allow it to present its American Rescue Plan Act proposals to the public. Doing so could help nonprofits see how their goals align with them, the mayor said.
“It would be a little cleaner, and maybe more productive if we have a standalone meeting,” he said.
The meeting could be held as early as next week, Poe said.
Jon DeCarmine, director of the GRACE Marketplace homeless resource center, urged the commission to rely on large, established nonprofits instead of smaller, unproven ones.
“I’m not 100% sure that this is the right time to bring in new, or untested or inexperienced groups who have some great ideas, but may not be able to get a program up and running as quickly as we need it,” DeCarmine said.
The commission also voted to set aside $250,000 for utility debt forgiveness and $500,000 in eviction protection funds paid to landlords.
Commissioner Reina Saco asked her colleagues to retain some of the federal funds to help local residents who are behind on utility payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The longer we wait to get money in the hands of people, the worse those folks’ situations will be,” Saco said.
Helen Harris, the city’s housing and community development supervisor, said there are about 22,000 residents with utility debts, adding up to about $2.4 million total in debt.
“That $250,000 is not going to put a dent in that debt,” Harris said.
Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed, and added that the total debt number not only encompasses residents who can’t afford to pay their expenses and live in substandard housing conditions, but also those who simply forgot to pay their bill in any given month.
Poe said he hopes the federal aid will help reduce the COVID-19-related portion of debts.