HIGH SPRINGS- Two High Springs City Commission candidates discussed issues ranging from economic development to the sewer system at a forum held Tuesday by the Gainesville Tea Party.
Bob Barnas and Linda Clark Gestrin are running for the two expired seats, currently held by Mayor Larry Travis and Vice Mayor Byran Williams. While the incumbents are both running for re-election, neither attended the forum.
Travis said he refused to participate in a forum held by a Gainesville group. He said he would participate in forums every night of the week if they were put on by High Springs citizens.
“I’m not going to participate with any program that is put on by an outside group that has nothing invested in our city,” he said. “I won’t do it.”
Williams said he was on vacation.
Bill Ross, a High Springs citizen, moderated the hour-long event. He said he asked the Tea Party to hold the forum because this is such an important election cycle for the town.
“A lot of citizens get sound bites or news clippings,” he said. “They never get to listen to the candidates themselves.”
He gathered questions from citizens and business owners to ask the candidates.
The forum started with the candidates introducing themselves to the 50 attendees and explaining their reasons for running.
Gestrin said her father always told her to discover her purpose. When Commissioner John Hill stepped down, she realized she wanted to get involved in the High Springs City Commission. She attended meetings for two years.
“It’s personal,” she said. “Everything I have done brought me to now.”
Barnas also emphasized his attendance at commission meetings, explaining that he is tired of being ignored by those currently served. He said he refuses to allow the city to remain the mess it is.
“I have asked questions; I have made suggestions and I have been told to sit down,” he said. “Trust is something you don’t give lightly when you vote someone in. It is time to restore that trust.”
As the forum continued, Clark and Barnas animatedly shared their plans for the city. They agreed on many issues, building on each other’s statements in their one-minute responses.
An important issue addressed at the forum was High Springs’s economic state.
Ross said the city has a reputation for being unfriendly to businesses and asked what actions the candidates planned to take.
Barnas explained that as a realtor, he has seen these problems first hand. He said the city must be available for businesses and ready to offer them help.
“Get them to come in, and then help them stay,” he said. “If that means paying their rent for two months or giving them a subsidy, we need to do it. We must give incentives.”
He said that bringing in businesses and building on the tourism potential of the town is crucial to future development. Barnas said the springs and rivers surrounding the area make High Springs unique and need to be shown to the world.
Gestrin agreed that the unique aspects of the town need to be given more attention. She called for a full-functioning downtown that would keep citizens from having to drive to Gainesville for goods.
To her, another important task is making use of the railroad again. She said it brought jobs to the city, bringing in the wealth-producing industries that are currently lacking.
“I do not want to change who we are, but we need jobs and we need revenue,” she said. “It’s time to roll out the red carpet and pull up the bed of nails. The whole town is just sitting there waiting to develop.”
Beyond bringing in new business, the candidates answered Ross about the town’s growing debt with a call for a new spending policy. Clark said the city is $5 million in debt, but the commission continues to spend money.
“We need to figure out what we can afford,” she said. “We need to live within our means. We have to re-evaluate everything we’re doing.”
Barnas said a logical action would be to tax the enclaves of Alachua County that High Springs surrounds. The city does not currently collect taxes from these areas.
The candidates also expressed their desire to stop the expansion of the sewer system. The project has been underway in High Springs for five years.
Clark explained that she does not feel comfortable with the city completing an electric sewer system, citing the dangers faced in a mass power outage.
Barnas proposed splitting the city’s sewer usage in half. Part of the city would use the plant that is already built in High Springs.
For the other half of the city, he suggested putting a pipe down State Road 441 to make use of Alachua’s sewer system. He said a representative of the plant had tried to set up a meeting before to discuss the option, but the commission had no interest in pursuing the action.
Barnas and Clark also answered questions about issues like alcohol ordinances, water quality and the historic district.
At the end of the forum, the candidates summarized their campaign platforms.
Barnas said he wants to revamp the way the city is run. He explained that he leads by example.
“This will not be a part-time job,” he said. “I will get the citizens engaged, and we will have fun.”
Gestrin also called for a new, common sense direction in High Springs government.
“I care about what you’re thinking,” she said. “I’m on your side. Together, we can do this.”
Another candidate forum will be held prior to the Nov. 8 election. The New Century Woman’s Club will hold their annual candidate forum on Oct. 25.