By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
The Apopka farmworker community lives in the shadows. They keep their heads down and generally don’t make waves, interact with politicians or go to City Council meetings. They do not vote in large “super-voter” blocs or even speak the language in some instances.
But they do a great deal of the work in Apopka, and its backbreaking labor for low wages, limited benefits, and a small voice in the community.
On Tuesday night this hard-working quiet community reached out to the candidates of Apopka. They spoke their minds and asked questions of those running for the city commission and for mayor. Eight out of ten candidates attended the event, along with about 100 spectators. They packed into the Farmworkers Association of Florida (FWAF) headquarters in Apopka to watch the Candidate Forum sponsored by the FWAF, and the Hope CommUnity Center (HCC).
All eight candidates answered questions selected by the FWAF and HCC, which focused on issues such as City-issued ID cards, health care access, English as a second language, and gentrification.
It was the first time the community got to hear from many of the candidates, including a relative-unknown to Apopka politics – Seat #2 challenger Alicia Koutsoulieris.
“I’m a relatively new resident here in Apopka,” said Koutsoulieris. “We bought a house here about 2 1/2 years ago. The draw was that my family was here, but also the city seemed a little more welcoming. A little more of a hometown feeling as opposed to Orlando. I did grow up in Central Florida. I’m graduated from UCF. I studied political science. I’m working on a Masters degree also in political science. I feel that my background in community organizing makes me a great candidate.”
The first question dealt with the plight of the farmworker community as it relates to being issued government identification. Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer was open to the idea.
“The issue of immigration is an important one to the farmworker community,” said Kilsheimer. “And I’m committed to a city organization that treats everyone with dignity and respect. With regards to an ID card, we will have to sit down and do our homework and make sure we’re doing the right thing and doing everything we can under the law, but I do think it’s a worthy concept that we should explore.”
Kilsheimer’s challenger for Apopka mayor, Orange County Commissioner Bryan Nelson, provided an alternative to identification issued by the City from a local program that assists the homeless.
“I don’t know if it’s a city function,” said Nelson. “I think it would have to be a county or state issued ID. I’m not sure what it takes, but I know that identification is an important issue in the farmworker community. There is a regional program called IDignity that’s trying to help with homeless people to get them IDs. I don’t see why you couldn’t incorporate that same program to give another group of people proper identification.”
Growth was not a specific question, but it spilled into the remarks of two Seat #1 candidates that participated in the event.
“This is the year that is really going to set the tone for what our city is going to become,” said Seat #1 candidate Suzanne Kidd. “We entered a period of tremendous growth. When I moved here 17 years ago the city had 26,000 residents. We’re over 50,000 now and projections are we’re going to go way over that in the next 10 to 15 years. New growth is going to continue in our area. What does that mean for us? What are we going to be like 10 to 15 years from now? If I were in your shoes, I think I would want to see people on the City Council who had a real grasp of that issue… who has a vision for what the city could become, and are willing to listen to everyone in the city and make sure the city works for everybody… and make sure that the economic growth is going to be spread around the community and everybody gets to participate. In the past, growth and economic progress have gone only to certain people. We can’t let that continue. We have to make sure that every part of our community participates.”
Theresa Mott, also a candidate for Seat #1, believes Apopka is in a pivotal position as it relates to growth.
“Apopka is at a crossroads right now,” she said. “We’re on the cusp of enormous growth and we have a decision to make. We can make a right turn or we can make a wrong turn. And I want to make the right turn, and in order to do that I see us continuing to create a platform that we can grow our city by investing in our economic development… and the way we do that is to attract business that sees the growth we have happening and they want to be a part of it. And when that happens it improves the entire community. It improves the quality of life in Apopka as a whole. People on the campaign trail that I talk to say we need more stuff to do. We need more amenities. We need different types of entertainment options and that’s what I’d like to be a part of making happen in Apopka. But with growth, we know it can compromise our public safety… so we have to continue to invest in our police department, fire department, all of our first responders to keep us safe as this growth continues.”
Alexander Smith, also a candidate for Seat #1, kept his focus on the youth of Apopka.
“Our youth is our future,” he said. “If we don’t invest in them now we’re going to invest in them later. It’s better to invest in them now and we can do that by working together. It takes a village. And so it’s going to take all of the citizens of Apopka in order to make this a reality to make it happen. Some of these things we need to bring to our city like a YMCA, a Boy’s club, a swimming pool that both high schools can use to train their teams, and the citizens of Apopka can enjoy as well. We also need affordable housing. Everyone deserves an opportunity for homeownership. It’s a struggle. I started out pulling weeds in the nursery, pulling corn in the muck, picking oranges, but eventually with a lot of hard work, determination and support from the community, that’s why I am here today. So I want to give back… to whom much is given, much is required.”
Commissioner Diane Velazquez, the incumbent in the Seat #2 election, was happy to see the participation among the Apopka community in the governmental process.
“I have been here as Commissioner for 3 1/2 years and a resident for 13 years and when I first came here what I saw was a lack of involvement from the community. Today shows me how far forward we have come just in your participation and seeing our City Council meetings packed with residents sharing their issues. We are growing, and that means economic development. It means more families investing in our community. And the one thing I want to point out is that as proud as I have been in telling the story of Apopka, we have also invested. And Apopka is as much our home as for everyone else. So whether you’re here one year, 100 years, 10 years 20 years it is our home, and together we should work to make Apopka a family oriented place. We should invest in our youth because they are the future. When they finish high school and go to college I want them to go come back home to Apopka.”
Leroy Bell, also a candidate for Seat #2, warned about unbridled growth in Apopka that he believes could harm the city.
“I have no problem with growth,” he said. “Growth is good. But it’s fast growth that concerns me. What we’re doing is outgrowing our services, our first responders, and putting more pressure on them. If you bring business here, they have to be a stakeholder in the city. They have to come in and give opportunity, not just take it. My three concerns are financial stability, investing in infrastructure, and safe secure neighborhoods. You know just a few years ago we came in with a surplus, and now for the first time, we are in deficit. We can’t attract new business to help our youth if we can’t balance our budget.”
Kilsheimer closed the Forum with what he saw as a summary of the evening’s issues.
“The more people we get involved in talking about the future of Apopka the better,” said Kilsheimer. “I think if there’s one big takeaway from tonight‘s format it’s that all the questions were about what can the City do to help people in their homes, in their lives, in their pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families and their children. And quite honestly the truth of the matter is until I was elected 3 1/2 years ago I don’t think you can point to a single thing the City of Apopka actually did to help people. Since I was elected we have hired a grant writer that has attracted $1.5 million to do things like rebuild Lake Avenue Park. We’re going to rebuild the Alonzo Williams community center. We created jobs for students in the Apopka Youth Works program. We established the Apopka begins and ends in “A” program that identifies community resources to help our local elementary schools. One result of that program is the $750,000 grant that will create after-school mentoring and tutoring for kids at Phillis Wheatley and Zellwood elementary schools. All of those things are but a drop in the bucket as to what needs to happen in the City of Apopka. We should come together. We are city and 50,000 residents now. And so we’ve got to rally the city together to help people.”