The purpose of a political forum is to get to know the candidates running for office. It's not set up to create an adversarial atmosphere or pit one participant against another. A good forum will give the voter all the information they need to make an informed decision to choose the person that best shares their values.
The Apopka City Commission Candidate Forum was sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, and moderated by Laverne McGee of The Black News Channel. It was a 72-minute event that featured Wes Dumey, and Commissioner Diane Velazquez - running for Seat #2, and Eric Mock, and Nick Nesta - running for Seat #4. Each candidate delivered opening and closing remarks, and McGee asked 11 questions that ranged from bizarre and unusual, to interesting and unique.
Unique is one of those words that gets thrown around too much and is often misused - like literally. But in this case, I'm using the word unique in its most literal term.
McGee opened the question format with what can only be described as a novel query, aimed only at Velazquez.
"The first question will go to Diane Velazquez because she is the incumbent," said McGee. "And once again, these questions were all submitted by community members. They will be asked randomly as well."
"How many City employees are employed by the City of Apopka? And how many restaurants are currently in Apopka?"
Random would certainly be accurate to describe that question, but it made me ask myself a question:
"How many moderators would ask that question to open a forum? And why was it important that Velazquez know the exact number of employees and restaurants in Apopka, while not being important that the other candidates know?"
I guess that was two questions I asked myself, but I digress...
"When we did our last budget, we're somewhere over 490 employees give or take," said Velazquez. "As far as restaurants... between the fast foods, drive-thrus, and sit-downs, I'd have to say probably between 65, maybe 75... within the city of Apopka... or a little bit outside of the city. What we have in Apopka is when our residents are asking for restaurants, what they're looking for is a restaurant with a destination. Once they get to sit down and have dinner with their family, they want to be able to leave the restaurant and walk around and see other activities in the city. We have a lot of fast-food restaurants in our city... so we're looking to have more sit down and fine dining in our city."
"Thank you," said McGee. "And once again that question was specifically for her because she is the incumbent."
The first question for all four candidates was about leadership and management style.
"My leadership and management style is very much a business forward approach," said Dumey. "I've been working in private enterprise for 22 years and I've owned my own business for 15 years. And that comes with challenges, but the thing is, you always have to be responsive to a changing environment. So my leadership style is to be strategic in thought, strategic in planning, but you also have to be open-minded enough to know whenever you need change."
"Two words, servant leadership," said Mock. "I mentioned in my opening statement that I spent 31 years in health care. And if any of you are or have been in that industry, or that business, I think the most successful people are those that have a servant leadership attitude, and servant leadership approach."
"My leadership management style is kind of a two-pronged approach," said Nesta. "I have been in real estate since 2009. I've seen varying markets, as I'm sure most of us have. I started my company in 2013. And I've been very successful in that. Since then, I live in a bottom-up approach that leaders should be serving on the bottom serving those that are perceived to be lowly of employees, making sure that they have buy-in to what our organization believes."
"When I was a police officer, I went into situations where you had to kind of destabilize what was the what was going on," said Velazquez. "So as a commissioner, my leadership style is to really empower those around me. And they are the ones that helped me to lead because I get to understand... I get to hear what their concerns are. And in doing so, they helped me to do my job."
McGee asked a question that brought with it some of the most thought-provoking answers from the candidates.
"What unique skills or experiences do you bring to the City Council that are currently missing without you?"
Dumey pivoted to an earlier answer in order to drive the point home about his business bonafide.
"The best answer I can come up with on them and apply as a business forward approach," Dumey said. I think it's really important. And I know there are other commissioners with data analytics and data science-type backgrounds. But really being able to look at a complex situation and break it down into its component parts. How do we get from here to here? That's where I bring a good experience level. I like to call it business forward."
"Diane, I'm going to have you also answer this question," said McGee. "Of course, the question was "what's missing," but you've been here [on City Council]... so you can certainly adjust - but I'll ask the question again..."
"What unique skills or experiences do you bring to City Council that are currently missing without you? So if you were gone, what would be missing?"
Velazquez paused for a moment, and then said "A woman," referring to her status as the only female on City Council. The two-word answer received perhaps the largest applause of the evening. "It has been a challenge because when I worked in New York City there was the scarcity of women being represented. What would be missing [ob City Council] would be the compassion... would be a point of view that I think women bring to public service, especially in leadership in government that would be missing."
In his response, Nesta referenced the Harmon Road property that was potentially undervalued in a proposed trade for the golf course lands at Rock Springs Ridge.
"This one I really enjoy answering, because I think it was an example in the last year, and it's the perfect sample that I bring real estate experience to," said Nesta. "I bring the knowledge and understanding of development. The city is seeing some incredible growth in the last few years, and it's going to continue to see even more growth. I think having somebody on the council that understands the true value and how to value real estate property is key. An example is that last year there was a potential that a parcel of city-owned property was going to be sold for millions less than what it was actually worth. That was brought to the attention of the Council, and luckily that didn't happen because it would not have benefited all of Apopka. That's what I bring to the Council, and that is what's missing right now."
Mock referred to his listening skills and his pragmatic approach to decision-making.
"I would listen very carefully, very carefully to what is being discussed at those commission meetings," said Mock. "One of the things that got me interested in doing this... I have now spent pretty much the last three months going live to the commission meetings and prior to that I watched one of the commission meetings on video, and then I backed up and have watched a total of four. And by the time the election comes along, I'll probably have watched seven months worth of commission meetings. I think the other thing that I would bring to the commission is... I will ask more than one follow-up question. I do not like making decisions when I do not understand what's going on. So I will ask questions. I'm observant, my wife will tell you. She probably thinks I'm going to have a car wreck because I'm so observant. But that's what I bring."
It's difficult, as a city commissioner, to push initiatives through when you are only one vote, but it's something that can be accomplished with the right amount of perseverance. The next question asked the candidates what initiative they would be working on if elected.
Velazquez: A review of the City Charter and South Apopka
"If I return to the City Council, I definitely want to review our city charter," said Velazquez. "And the reason for that is because the last time that it was done in 2013, not only has the city grown, but our responsibilities have grown. And it's not defined what each of the commissioner's responsibilities is. We pretty much create our own kind of job title. So I like to have the city charter committee come in and kind of review what they want to see and what they feel each of our responsibility is to them. The second one would be to finally address South Apopka as one, because with the new districting right now, I understand that all of Apopka will be in one district, so it's time for our City to really sit down and address the south side of Apopka that is not part of our City."
Dumey: Complete the City Center and Station Street Project
"As a city commissioner, again, I'd be one of five votes for city business," Dumey said. "But one thing I'd like to do is drive the City Center to completion. And not specifically the south side, I think that's probably a ship that's sailed at this point... with the groundbreaking that took place this week. I'd like to see unique businesses here in Apopka... places that are destinations for either people in this city, or for people from other cities to come to. I don't think they're going to come from generic-style restaurants. The second thing would be the station street redevelopment district. I think the city council missed a big opportunity a couple of weeks ago in sending a developer who was willing to do an RFP... and at least go to contract negotiations. That person was sent away. And I don't get the impression they are coming back. I think that was a missed opportunity. And that's an initiative that I will help drive forward to get that to resolution."
Nesta: Empowering residents and a workshop on annexing South Apopka
"Real estate development is a huge topic right now in Apopka," said Nesta. "I want more public participation. The public, it just seems anytime there's a new multifamily project, industrial complex, they don't feel like they're informed enough. And then secondly, it was, I think, very important, something we should not delay just discussing South Apopka annexation, that would be very forward doing a workshop just to discuss open communication, let's make sure we have some type of discussion moving forward."
Mock: Workshop on annexing South Apopka, and single-member districts
"I mentioned it in my opening statement about a tide raising all," Mock said. "When you listen or you're in person at commission meetings there are individuals from South Apopka that, when they're speaking, I would not guess that they don't believe and feel that they are part of Apopka. Unfortunately, they're not part of the City. They're not part of the annexed part of the City. So I think, you know, for however many years that's gone on, I can't imagine moving forward with that continuing to be the same situation. That discussion needs to be had. The other thing that I would look at is our districts. Apopka is never going to be the small town that it used to be. And I think it's high time that districts are looked at."
McGee pivoted away from initiatives and asked about a hypothetical grant and how the candidates would spend it.
"If you received a $1 million grant for the City, and could use it any way you wanted, what would you do with it, and why?"
"I would ask the question, 'what is our most important, immediate need to be filled on the city?'" Dumey said. "And maybe it's something like hiring an additional firefighter, maybe it's something like putting some new buildings in because that's going to be a big thing for us in the future. And maybe it's spending a little bit of money cleaning up the city, cleaning up the medians and sidewalks. Really what the first thing I would do, and I'm kind of giving a generic answer, but I need to figure out exactly how we would spend... what's the best precedent for that to make sure it's spent correctly."
"I've been an advocate for signage, for cleaning up the medians, putting pretty landscape in, and actually just prioritizing what I feel the City is in need of," Velazquez said. "Probably even add a staff member or for our police and fire department, because they are understaffed... but I would say that at least some of that money would be for beautification and signage because when you come into Apopka you know you're in Apopka and where is our City Hall? Where are our parks? That's very important."
"It goes back to pretty consistent answers... and they're easy answers - workshop it," said Nesta. "I feel like we've done a lot of grants, but they're always kind of choosing where the money's going. Let's get community involvement. Let's see what staff thinks where that money should go. There will probably be some intersect somewhere between the staff and citizens... and that can become the best place where that money is spent in. I said it a lot... we are lifestyle creators as the City Council."
"So you asked the question, I'm assuming it's a one-time million dollar grant, and not in the following," said Mock. "But if I had that million dollars, I would go straight to the Station Street development. That's where I would put that money to try and expand it, and bring that RFP bidder back, or have at least another couple of people that would bid on that project."
A longstanding Apopka City Commissioner once said in a debate that community service comes before public service. It's a way to show your commitment to Apopka. It's also a question the candidates took on late in the forum.
"How have you already been volunteering or serving others in the City?"
"Part of the thing is... participating in community events," Dumey said. "I have a team that's going out to the Apopka barbecue competition this weekend. And that's serving the community. Because whenever you show up at these events and participate in them, that's an activity in the community. Coming out and attending Chamber of Commerce events. And actually, another way that I do community development is making these phone calls... trying to drive business here. I've always thought of myself anywhere as an ambassador for the City of Apopka. When I'm on an airplane, I'm talking about Apopka with my seatmates. And that's a little thing, but those little things all add up into a big sum."
"I've been involved in the community with many different organizations," said Velazquez. "The Women's Club... I am involved in the schools - volunteering, tutoring, mentoring. I mean, I'm an active member. With this Apopka committee, I support and actually sponsor, so many different events here in the city. So I spend a lot of time involved with many of the organizations that are here in the city, and proudly am a member of many of these organizations. So it's something that I feel is very important, as the commissioners... to be involved with our community to get to know the community. To go out and just really connect with the people. That's the most important thing that we do every day."
"Another great question - workshops," Nesta said jokingly after referencing workshops in many of his answers. "I think the key is showing up for events, and meeting people where they're at... it's really getting a pulse on the citizen's changing needs. I think showing up and just communicating with people at City-sponsored events. Something my wife and I hold very dear to us is just teaching in general. My wife was a teacher and she's very proud of that as am I and now in raising our beautiful twins. So we have a special heart for schools, for underprivileged students as well as for the teachers. I think we sometimes lose sight of teachers who are going through a lot themselves."
"In our neighborhood, I volunteered to be on the board," Mock said. "And someone decided that I should be the president of that homeowner's association. So that's a volunteer organization. And I'm sure that many of you have been involved in similar organizations as well. I know there has been mentioned earlier about beautification. You really show your pride in where you live by how well you step up, and you clean up... and it takes just a little bit. It's amazing to go out and actually pick up trash on the side of the road and cars drive by and honk the horn at you and say thanks. It really was surprising to me when my wife and I did that one time, how many people actually recognize that. I think we can all be a part of that process here in Apopka."
It's not a question that candidates running for office want to ponder, but McGee asked the four participants about their plans if they lose the election.
"If you are not elected, what will you do to try to help work on issues that are important to you?"
"If I'm not elected, I will continue to work with the Chamber of Commerce to recruit new businesses," said Dumey. "I think that's really important. I know, there's a lot of discussion about the necessity or not the necessity of hiring economic development directors, to drive new business. One of the things I think we can do as a community is, there's a lot of business talent inside our city, people who will make phone calls for free. I'm one of them. If I'm not elected, I'll also be down there at the Chamber making phone calls, and I want to help recruit new businesses, I'm not going to charge a single dime for doing it. That's power. You don't have to go out and pay people to do things you can ask people to volunteer to do things."
"If not elected, which I've been there already, I will continue to be involved in the community," Velazquez said. "I will continue to be a volunteer, I will continue to be a mentor, I will continue to be in the schools, I'll continue to be with the organizations that I belong to. And just continue to be part of the community and to be effective and still be a voice because I can still go to the City Council meeting. And I would still be articulating what I feel our community needs. We can work together, whether it's as Commissioner, or not, I absolutely will stay involved in the community, because I've been here 17 years - this is my home. And because it's my home, I want to be part of it."
"If I'm not elected, I will wake up the next morning, move forward... and whether I am or not elected, I plan on picking up my campaign signs," Mock said, to both applause and laughter. "I do not want to put that burden on anybody in the city. I put them out, I will pick them up. And I will get them up as quickly as possible. I really have enjoyed... in a very, very short period of time, numerous people running for this commission seat. And I have several meetings planned in the near future between now and the election, where I'm sure people will bring some information to me that I'll be able to be of assistance, be able to provide some of my leadership skills, and will volunteer to assist them in their process. So I certainly want to continue to support Cate Manley, the Chamber of Commerce, and the staff that's there because I think they're doing a wonderful job."
"Not much will change from what I'm doing right now," said Nesta. "I'm not elected, I still get to work. I'm at every single Council meeting. I'm at every DRC meeting, I'm at every planning commission meeting. And I think that's very valuable to the citizen... it goes back to what I'm saying, getting people engaged in the development process. Similarly, I'm going to continue to advocate to ensure all of Apopka is represented or benefiting from the decisions that have been made... not just small sections. It'll be all Apopka as well as understanding staff needs as well... to ensuring I see how I can as a citizen, continue to advocate for staff and make sure that they have to buy into what where this is going and how it's being led. And one thing whether they like it or not, I'm going to be staying in close contact with the Council. Everyone. I have all their numbers and I'm not losing them. They will be hearing from me, should I not be elected."
"What do you perceive as the three most important concerns facing the City of Apopka?"
Mock: Restaurants, Economic Development, and the hidden gems in Apopka
"So from the mayoral debate a week ago, the number one question was, when are we getting more restaurants? Mock said. "So apparently, food is a very, very important aspect, which we all partake of at least a couple times, or three times a day. The other thing was the economic development. And through that process, you know, how do we handle that here, we need to hire an economic development director. And then it was kind of split between several other things, annexation specific developments that are in process. But one thing I would say is that I think that we have some really, really good hidden gems in Apopka. And I think it would be cool if Apopkans to search out those hidden gems."
Nesta: Economic Development, Annexing South Apopka, and the Development Process
"This goes back to my answers go back to what's missing on the City Council and is somebody who's real estate experience," said Nesta. "I think the biggest one is economic development, having a focus in some capacity of where we're going and bring people in. The old ways worked. So there are some new cool ways that we can also implement with the old ways to really create incredible strategy moving forward. The development process goes back to a few questions ago that I think citizens are uncomfortable with how much development is going on and just because the lack of education lack communication, so we can communicate more with our citizens and more. And then also the annexation of South Apopka...I really think these are my top three that I want to hit."
Velazquez: Annexing South Apopka, City Center, Economic Development, and Workforce Housing
"I would agree that I think one of the priorities is the annexation and a workshop regarding the status of South Apopka - that was one of the issues that we keep hearing over and over again. of course, the City Center is to finally have a city downtown center. So that is another priority. And, of course, the economic development. Director, that has been an issue that I know that I've been hearing for the last six years. And even when we did our visioning back in 2015, that was also something that is something that brought up, and it needs to be a priority... and I have one more, which is the workforce housing. That's an issue here. The lack of workforce housing has been a subject that has been talked about often."
Dumey - City Center/Station Street, Attracting new businesses, and Preserving Apopka's natural beauty
"The top three for me... City Center/Station Street district, attracting unique businesses," said Dumey. "I think that's exactly a very critical issue here to have in the city. We need to have a reason for people to come here from outside of the area, and we need to have a reason for people that are in the area to stay here. We want people to come here instead of going to Winter Garden or Mount Dora. With that comes, you know a different diversity of restaurants. And I hear this repeatedly from talking to people who want different places to go and start thinking about bringing unique businesses and unique restaurants. And we're starting right behind us, with Three Odd Guys, and Propagate. That's a great start. Something's Fishy, Canon Coffee, I'm not continuing to eliminate everybody. But in the interest of time, I'll stop with that. And the third thing is making sure we preserve our natural beauty around the city of Apopka, we need to make sure that whenever, and I mentioned this in The Apopka Voice article that was published yesterday. I don't like to see 30 acres of oak trees bulldoze down, and then homes built side by side. And that is as far as the eye can see. I think we have a great asset here as far as the natural trees and the springs, and we need to make sure that we protect our natural assets as well."
The Chamber Forum was unusual, to say the least. It didn't ask the core questions of this campaign - economic development, staffing of the fire and police departments, taxes, budget management, yet many of those core issues still emerged.
This was a forum that kept its participants on their toes.
And despite being put off balance, the candidates were cordial to one another for the most part, and basically stayed in their own lanes. Despite the unusual questions, the forum accomplished its purpose of informing Apopka voters about these four candidates.
Thanks to Cate Manley and the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring the Mayoral Debate and City Commission Forum.
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