Gainesville mayoral candidates, Harvey Ward and Ed Bielarski, sparred on Tuesday in a debate sponsored by the Gainesville Sun and WUFT News at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
Between the two candidates, fruitful communication and healthy civil discourse were often degraded by accusatorial grandstanding as the election nears on Nov. 8.
Bielarski, the former general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities, was fired in January by Ward and the rest of the Gainesville City Commission. On Tuesday, he seemed to use every question as an opportunity to hammer Ward for the city’s budgetary dependence on GRU’s general fund transfer, which currently totals $34 million annually. He likened the city’s ballooning budget to a kind of extortion upon the city-owned utility company and the city’s residents.
Ward, a native of Gainesville and a current Gainesville city commissioner, made dramatic hand gestures of disagreement and called for a fact-check whenever Bielarski made an accusation.
Bielarski took issue even with Ward’s hand movements, “Let me talk instead of making motions please.”
On the most pressing issue to voters, candidates differed on solutions to abate GRU’s utility prices and to help those struggling to pay their bills.
“Reign in spending,” said Bielarski. “(The city budget has) gone from $107 million to $154 million in the time Mr. Ward has been in office. GRU is sending a transfer larger than what they make to the city government. They make $20 million a year on average and over the past four years they have submitted $38 million. That can’t be sustainable.”
Ward disagreed with Bielarski’s proposal to use rate stabilization funds to help utility affordability.
“I’m hoping there will be a fact check because some of these figures are just inaccurate, which is shocking since Bielarski is an (accountant),” said Ward. “Rate stabilization is specially for natural disasters. I voted four out of six years not to raise GRU rates.”
Ward suggested promoting household energy efficiency and transitioning away from imported natural gas. Both Ward and Bielarski have been integral in exploring green energy investment projects.
The candidates were then asked for ways to prevent further gentrification into Gainesville’s predominately Black neighborhoods.
Ward addressed the city commission’s extremely controversial ban of single-family zoning, enabling the construction of multiplexes within smaller single-family neighborhoods.
“We will seek to overturn that change in January,” Ward said. “We need an urban land trust that we’ve already funded, setting aside $1 million of American Rescue Plan funding to rebuild Citizens Field in east Gainesville and adding health facilities on Hawthorne Road. You want guardrails in place so growth doesn’t put anyone in the poorhouse.”
Bielarski blamed Ward’s past votes for increasing the gentrification problem but agreed land trusts are crucial to ensuring equitable housing and responsible public-private development projects.
“We have rising towers getting taller and taller down 13th Street,” Bielarski said. “At some point, we got to stop making residents tighten their belt while the city puts another notch in theirs. With UF building off-campus to the extent they are, they are changing the supply/demand curve that already exists. We are building luxury student housing across Gainesville and it’s taking away the nature of our community.”
Ward angrily retorted the luxury student housing development is in a fairly contained area and that most new construction is across from campus.
“We’ve committed $8 million from the American Rescue Plan to work with the Gainesville Housing Authority, neighborhood housing development corporations and other non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity. The city recently partnered to create Deer Creek, a senior affordable living complex.”
Such moments of healthy debate were quickly replaced by more acrimony. On a question regarding two students being killed after being hit on University Avenue, where drivers frequently zoom above the 35 mph speed limit, Bielarski shifted his answer to decry Ward’s complete street concept for pedestrians as reckless spending.
“We don’t have the money to do what we’re trying to do now,” Bielarski said. “You will just let GRU build another $68 million in debt and get another double-notch downgrade. I guess that’s just fine with you.”
Ward pushed back, flailing his arms.
“That’s offensive,” said Ward. “I had to talk with their families. We are talking about real children and students who lost their lives. Shame on you. That’s the kind of thing you do on Facebook all the time.”
Ward continued to advocate for complete streets, accommodating bikers, pedestrians, cars and motorbikes, saying University Avenue is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, not the city of Gainesville. Any changes must be state funded.
Bielarski portrayed Ward as a governmental strongman.
“City Hall has become a place where Commissioner Ward can look at people who come up for public comment and shame them,” Bielarski said. “Some of them have been arrested. You said very nasty things about me. You do not know me, Commissioner Ward. We have to make our community a civil place to be. I am standing up for those people who have been kicked out of city hall. Have we had enough of Harvey Ward?”
Bielarski then said he actually likes Ward, and has gotten along well with him over five years of working together. He praised Ward’s support for the Wild Spaces, Public Places sales tax for funding vital projects across Gainesville.
In their closing statements, Bielarski again demanded the city commission end its reliance on GRU’s transfer of funds and asked that they form a sustainable budget.
Ward took the opportunity to highlight his political heroes, former President Jimmy Carter and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, as being responsible for inspiring his pursuit of the mayoral seat.