With the majority of county commission seats up for election, winners will make a big impact on county government.
Alachua County voters face vastly different choices in this year’s election of three county commissioners, with the winners making up the majority of the five-member governing body.
The actions of the commissioners who are elected will make a big difference in the direction county government takes in many areas over the next four years. Those areas include economic development, land-use policies, environmental protection, social services and overall spending.
The Business Report interviewed all six candidates as a way to help our readers make an informed decision.
Here are interviews with the candidates from District 1, Mike Byerly (Democrat), and John Martin (Republican):
Mike Byerly, Democrat
What motivated you to run for the commission and to seek another term?
I ran for the commission 12 years ago because it seemed like we weren’t growing into the kind of community that I wanted to live in.
Once I became a commissioner, my focus expanded. You can’t have ahealthy environment without a strong economy and a stable and just social structure.
What are your qualifications?
Being a commissioner is the ultimate on-the-job training. Every meeting, you have to come up to speed on a dozen different subjects.
Instead of just taking the position, as many of our environmentalist do, that all growth is bad, it seemed more reasonable for me to develop a vision for what growth we want to see out in the community, and where we wanted it to be. I think we’ve come a long way down that path.
I take pride on helping develop our comprehensive plan based upon a lot of feedback from the community.
Since the comprehensive plan was adopted, we haven’t seen the kind of angry opposition to development proposals that we were seeing in the first four to six years that I was a commissioner.
I’ll use Springhills as an example. The first time it came along, we needed to hold the meeting on it at a nearby school because there were 400 to 500 residents who were angry about what was being proposed.
The county commission rejected the original proposal, which was generic and wasn’t going to make that part of our community better.
The property traded hands, and the new owner came back with another program based on a meeting at which the owner listened to what people were saying. It’s a testament to how well this approach works that at the final adoption hearing, not one citizen turned out and the county commission approved it unanimously.
I voted for probably 90 percent of the development proposals that have come to us in the last few years because they have been designed with the comprehensive plan in mind.
What do you hope to achieve as a county commissioner?
I believe we need to have the transportation issue approved by the voters. I believe the one on the ballot in November, which excludes transit, will fail.
In addition to maintaining county roads, we need a comprehensive approach to transportation.
Without the success of RTS, all of the major road segments surrounding campus would be failing right now. It’s important to have a transportation surtax that deals with all the problems we’re going to be facing in the next 20 years.
We need high frequency bus service that is competitive with the car. To take transit to the next level, we need buses that are much more frequent and that go to the places that people need to go.
So, what I hope to accomplish is either a three- quarter or a one-cent sales tax initiative that’s passed that deals with our roads and also deals with multi- modal transportation.
In terms of economic development, I want to continue to build the kind of community that makes us very competitive as a place where people want to come and that will attract the kind of industry we want to attract.
If we want to attract younger, well-educated people, we need to provide good amenities, good protection of our natural resources and good transit. These people like to be in a more urban setting. That’s what we are trying to build in the I-75 corridor.
Government can foster economic development by investing wisely in public infrastructure and services. You do that right, and the business community will do the rest.
How would you adjust spending priorities?
Alachua County is often cited as having the highest millage rate, but in per capita tax revenue we rank 34th, about $450 per year lower than the state average.
If you want to build the kind of community where people want to live, you need to pay taxes.
But we need to make sure that we’re spending the money wisely. Since the economy tanked, we have steadily reduced the county budget in terms of real dollars. Some people have seen this as an opportunity to get rid of the environmental protection department or eliminate all social services spending.
I don’t support those kinds of changes. I support the kind of across-the-board, gradual reduction we have taken. In terms of the budget adjusted for inflation and population, the purchasing power of the Alachua County budget has declined 12 percent since I took office.
We don’t do that many things in county government—police, fire, pick up your garbage, environmental protection, social services. I don’t consider anything we’re doing now to not be a core service.
John Martin, Republican
Why are you running for the commission?
I got tired of what was going on. I believe the county, and principally my opponent, Mike Byerly, has led us down a path away from the basic function of county government.
I find it cumbersome to do business with the county, both as mayor and city commissioner for Hawthorne and as a private citizen and business owner.
I am very concerned about the economic future of Alachua County. I honestly believe that if we don’t change the general philosophy that we’re operating under, we will steadily go down.
We are losing companies. The City of Gainesville and the County have
patted themselves on the back for Innovation Square, saying that they “fast-tracked” it. If you’re fast-tracking something, that, by its very nature, implies that there is a slow track.
What are your qualifications?
I have a family tradition several generations deep of involvement in elected office in Alachua County,
I own my own home; I own property; and I’m a businessman. Any rules and regulations and any taxation impact me directly.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone running who has served on more boards and committees than I have. In addition to serving as a commissioner and mayor of Hawthorne, I served the charter review boards of both Hawthorne and the County.
I currently serve on the Wild Spaces Public Places Citizens Oversight Committee. I was chair of the Transportation Task Force. I was the first rural advisor on the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization. I’ve been on the Regional Planning Commission.
I take great pride that whenever the League of Cities is looking for one person to represent all of the cities in the county, they’ve chosen me every time. It would be a complete breath of fresh air for the county commission to have someone from one of the small cities on it.
What do you hope to achieve as a county commissioner?
I believe that we have to reprioritize the county budget. If I’m elected, and I can get two other votes, I would zero-base the budget. We need to literallytake everything out of the budget and vote to put it back in.
I would start with police, the fire and the infrastructure. I would fund those first before I would fund anything else. The next thing I would do is look for things that are being provided by another entity.
You could look at merging Environmental Protection and Growth Management into one department. If you look at how the county has used environmental protection, it’s primarily in a growth- management function.
The county talks about having to meet a lot of unfunded state mandates. The problem is that Alachua County will take a state mandate, and it will always choose the most restrictive and the most expensive approach.
In planning for work on 16th Avenue, the county went beyond state requirements and added all kinds of amenities that are not required by the state. The cost of the project has doubled because of the extra work, the deterioration of road during the lengthy planning process and the increased cost of materials.
Are there specific land-use policies that you would change?
I don’t think they’re market-driven enough. Mr. Byerly says that they are what the developers want. I’ve seen no evidence of that. It is what the developers had to accept in order to develop a
property that they think has a high value. As for mass transit, the City of Gainesville and
Alachua County aren’t addressing a need. They’re addressing a want.
They could expand transit into East Gainesville, where poor people need it to get back to forth to work, but they’re focusing millions of dollars on the west side. It’s going to have to get extremely congested before someone who lives in Haile Plantation is going to choose to ride the bus.
The county commission was recently debating whether a farmer could sell produce that he grew on his own property. They had a three-hour debate on it. In addition to other restrictions, they concluded that the farmer cannot put an off-site sign up to advertise his business.
I think we could take a look at having signs, perhaps at major intersections or on a seasonal basis, with some flexibility.
I don’t even want to have a debate about whether a farmer could sell produce at his own farm. There should be some rules as far as health and safety goes, but to debate the topic for three hours shows to me that you’re way off base in the role of the county commission.