Matt Howland began his career at 24 as a public school teacher at Westwood Middle School and was inspired to continue working in public service. He founded a nonprofit after-school fitness program called Youth Combine, where he was awarded the Governor’s Young Entrepreneur medal.
Howland has also focused on working with solar energy and army senior leadership, supporting efforts to deliver emergency services and resources to soldiers around the world.
Now, he seeks to fill Commissioner Gail Johnson’s vacant position, with three years left in her term after she resigned. He spoke with WUFT reporter Jacquelyn Deo about his journey and what he would like to tackle as an at-large commissioner.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk me through your decision to run?
So when news came out that Gail Johnson was resigning, I had some friends call and ask me what my thoughts were on it. I gave it careful consideration and started calling friends, supporters and folks that have known me for a long time. I had some great conversations with my wife. And I expected a lot of people to say “Are you crazy? Why are you doing this?” But in the end, they all said, “You’ve got to do it. This is perfect. The timing is perfect. The city is ready for your message. You’re ready.” I’ve been involved in politics for about 13 years and I’ve volunteered on campaigns at various levels. I love the city and I know a lot about the city. I studied the electoral math very carefully to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into. But most importantly, I believe it’s time to get back to basics and that our local government should focus on local, actionable issues. I have the privilege of campaigning on my truths and honestly speaking for what I believe. I don’t have to pander to anyone. I felt now’s the time for me to step up and be the candidate myself.
What issues do you hope to address in the position?
Utility rates and the push for solar energy
I understand that there are rising costs associated with energy production, but increasing utility rates should not be the default solution. And I know we have the biomass plant, and we’ve done the best we can to make the biomass plant work for us, but that doesn’t have to prevent us from long-term strategic planning towards solar energy. The city is there, the voters want it. I’ve knocked on 845 doors as of this interview, and everybody is ready for solar energy.
Development doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Development doesn’t mean Walmart’s or luxury student apartments everywhere. Depot Park is a beautiful example of responsible development. I think downtown Gainesville, and the areas east of Gainesville, are primed and ready for responsible development. We should keep pushing in that direction, with the type of development that makes Gainesville unique and the city that we love.
This is another big issue I hope to continue our great work on. We’ve already done some good work in this area. I know that in the years past, the city has done a lot of research and planning on expanded bicycle paths and multimodal transportation. I believe that we should ensure that our streets are safe for all who use them. That includes pedestrians, but also runners and cyclists and of course, automobile drivers.
I believe that we should do the best we can to preserve our beautiful parks and our beautiful green spaces. Those are spaces that everyone can enjoy. We should do the best we can to preserve those spaces and make sure that they are beautiful and lasting for generations to come.
What do you hope to accomplish during your term?
I believe my energy and focus sets me apart. No one will work harder than I will work on this campaign. No one will work harder than I will to turn the vote of every member of this community. And certainly, if I am so fortunate to be elected, no one will work harder than I will. As a city commissioner, I believe that the commission could use a little less activism and a little more willingness to work together to get things done. And that’s the mentality that I bring to the commission. One of the things I hope to do is, as we all work together to find sustainable solutions, I believe we can do so in a positive manner. No more fighting. No more digging our heels in. No more stalemates. I’d push towards finding common ground to do great positive work for all of Gainesville. Compromise doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We can all work together and move this city forward.
Are there any specific projects of Commissioner Johnson’s that you hope to bring to completion?
I think Commissioner Johnson was a strong fighter for the things that she believed in. And I hope that we can take on a lot of the intent behind what she was fighting for. I think East Gainesville deserves a closer look at what we can do to help get the resources that they’ve been waiting far too long for. This includes responsible development in East Gainesville and careful consideration for the preservation of historically Black neighborhoods. These are things that a lot of citizens in Gainesville support, but it’s how we approach these ideas to get them done. There’s only so much time and money each day. And it’s a question of, “What do we want to work on today? What do we want to fund today?” Because what we fund today might prevent funding a project tomorrow. So one of the things I’m most passionate about is the prioritization of our projects. If we are working together, if we are all rowing in the same direction and if we have strong leadership, we can prioritize projects. We can get a lot of great work done for the city of Gainesville.
In her resignation, Commissioner Johnson cited an inability to make systemic change because of a majority of the decisions made by the commission and the working environment of the city administration. Do you share those concerns? How do you plan to approach those obstacles?
First I’d like to say that I commend the commissioners who are trying so hard to work well together. Like many voters in the city, I too opened my newspaper and I’m disappointed in the behavior that I see. One of the things that I hope to do as a commissioner is to have everyone know that I have friends, and I don’t make enemies. I don’t fight, I don’t dig my heels in, I don’t create stalemates. And as we move forward together as a city, the best thing we can do for everyone in the city is find a way to work together and find common ground. These issues have a lot of nuances. They require careful conversations with individuals who have opinions that are different from our own. They require great civil debate. Debate is a great thing when it’s done appropriately and with respect. At the end of the day, we need to come together to make the decision that’s best for all of Gainesville.
Do you have any other ideas for responding to the staffing shortage after the recent resignations?
One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot in my campaign is the need for a little less activism and a little more business experience on the city commission. And that’s what I bring to this campaign as a small business owner. The commissioners are very much like business managers when managing the charter officers. So this is why it’s critically important to make sure that the commissioners put more of a business hat on now and less of an activism hat on if we can approach it in that way. Gainesville is an incredible city. There’s a reason why we all live here. There’s a reason why we love the city. We will find talented, passionate, positive and energetic people to fill these roles. But we have to work together. We have to be unafraid to approach it from a business management point of view.
How would you approach GRU’s financial dilemma and the calls from residents for lower rates?
So I’ve knocked on 845 doors so far and rising utility rates is one of the things I hear most often. The city has a biomass plant, where we took some action to take over the contract. And now we have to take some action to make sure that the biomass plant works for us. The cost of energy production is not static; it goes up. A couple things that we can do to address the rising cost of energy production are two things: One, a core tenant of my campaign, the prioritization of the projects that we’re working on. So what we prioritize or spend money on today might prevent us from spending money to keep utility rates down tomorrow. But also the continued push for long-term strategic planning towards solar energy, which is an incredibly cost-effective way to generate power. Anyone who says that solar energy is not a cost effective way to produce power is not speaking the truth. The residents of this city know that. Number two: let’s make sure that we are long-term, not just focused on tomorrow, and implementing long-term strategic planning towards solar energy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or clarify?
No, but I know that as soon as I get out of this interview, I’m scheduled to hit 85 more doors this afternoon.