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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 31, 201905:00 AM EST

The Cawton Report: District 14 City Council candidates face off at forum

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Working with mayor, neighborhood development among the topics for hopefuls vying to fill term-limited Jim Love’s seat.
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

It was standing room only Tuesday night at Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points as five candidates seeking the District 14 City Council seat discussed their visions for the community. 

Democrats Sunny Gettinger and Jimmy Peluso joined Republicans Randy DeFoor, Henry Mooneyhan and Earl Testy at the forum.

All except Testy, a write-in candidate, will appear on the ballot in the March 19 unitary election. If no candidate receives 50 percent of votes plus one vote, the top two will participate in a May 14 runoff election. 

Incumbent District 14 representative Jim Love is term-limited from running again. He said he is not endorsing a candidate. 

For nearly two hours, the candidates discussed working with Mayor Lenny Curry, moving Confederate-era monuments, dredging the St. Johns River and development in historic neighborhoods. 

Working with the mayor

Since winning the mayor’s office in mid-2015, Curry has successfully moved pieces of his agenda through council, often with unanimous support from its 19 members.

While there are a few representatives who often spar with Curry and his administration, the sense around City Hall is that the agendas of the executive and legislative branches are closely aligned, particularly under council President Aaron Bowman’s leadership.

Mooneyhan said he was not “signing on to be Lenny Curry’s boy” but that he would and should be willing to work with the mayor. 

DeFoor told residents that it is important to have checks and balances on the executive branch. “But you have to work with the mayor, bottom line,” she said. “If you don’t work with the mayor, nothing gets done, it’s just a fact.” 

DeFoor said Curry has done a lot of good during his first term. 

Gettinger told the audience that it is the legislative arm’s job to “ask hard questions.” 

“The reality is hard questions are not hostile acts,” she said. 

“Government works best when the different branches are independent of each other,” Gettinger said, echoing criticism that council is not independent enough. 

Testy said he “would like to think I would support the mayor, especially as it concerns criminal justice and improvements to our prisons.” 

“I’d also like to think I could say no to him when I disagree,” he said. 

Peluso offered the harshest criticism of the mayor, saying the environment around City Hall has become toxic since Curry took office. 

“I truly believe that the rhetoric and the things that people are saying and writing are so not Jacksonville,” Peluso said. 

“We need people in City Hall who are going to say, ‘this isn’t right’,” he said. 

The port and resiliency

Other discussion included district-specific issues, including flooding, development and infrastructure. 

When Hurricane Irma hit Jacksonville in 2017, some neighborhoods in District 14 experienced historic flooding. 

Gettinger said the city’s lack of response to flooding and infrastructure issues is what led her to run for council.

“I didn’t see us take on any of those issues,” she said. Gettinger also was critical of the federal project to dredge parts of the St. Johns River.

She said she’s seen no proof that dredging will be good for business. 

“With no data, no information and no thought about what it means for our children and their children,” she said. 

Mooneyhan and Testy said deepening the channel from 40 to 47 feet will spur economic development. 

“We used to be a transportation hub in Jacksonville and all that business left us,” Mooneyhan said. 

“We can regrow that economy,” he said, because he thinks other ports are “over capacity.” 

DeFoor said if elected she would focus on fixing long-standing drainage issues and underground utility infrastructure.

“In our district alone, we have to invest in infrastructure,” she said. “We need to do an assessment of our drainage and we need to have a plan of how we’re going to fix it.”  

Peluso said Florida is behind other states with water infrastructure, and Jacksonville’s leadership has not done enough to address the environmental impacts of climate change. 

He criticized Curry for removing Jacksonville from the 100 Resilient Cities coalition, a network of cities eligible for private funding and guidance established in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation. 

The organization says its goal is to help cities become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges.

“We lost out on $1 million,” Peluso said. “We could’ve put that into a resilience officer and that resilience officer could’ve created plans and projects for us to implement right now.”  

Development concerns 

One area the candidates seemed to agree on was slowing the pace of development in the historic Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods. 

Some are concerned about what they referred to as improper rezoning they said is undermining the neighborhoods’ character. 

Gettinger called the city’s permitting process “adversarial” and said it is too hard for the average resident to know when public hearings will occur.

She, and others, also were critical of developers who rezone their properties to a planned unit development.

The category allows property owners to combine multiple uses like residential and retail. 

Gettinger said while PUDs can serve a purpose, “the devil is always in the details.” 

DeFoor said the city formerly required developers to be more specific about their intended plans with PUDs and she believes that’s not the case anymore. 

“Now they do these PUDs where they throw everything in the kitchen sink in there,” DeFoor said. “So you literally don’t know what use is going to go on that property.” 

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