What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Destin? Well, if you asked the men and women running for seats on the Destin City Council you would largely get the same answer — economic diversity/development.
With a crowd of more than 100 in attendance at the Destin United Methodist Church's Life Center last week, seven out of the eight candidates shared their thoughts on topics ranging from traffic and transportation to dogs on the beach, concession services at Henderson Beach State Park and grading the city's code enforcement.
Attendees at the forum, which was hosted by The Destin Area Chamber of Commerce and The Destin Log included Rodney Braden, incumbent Jim Foreman, Scott Jacobs, Skip Overdier, Matthew Pace, Prebble Ramswell, and Tom Weidenhamer. Larry Hines is out of the country on a pre-planned trip.
While most of the candidates had similar answers to the battery of questions, there were plenty of distinctions.
Dogs on the Beach
When asked about the possibility of dogs on the beach, each candidate shot down the idea, with the exception of Weidenhamer, whose wife Nancy spearheaded fundraising efforts for the Destin dog park.
"My answer is maybe," he said. "If we had a specified area, designated for use by dogs, and it was easily marked so people knew this section was being used by dogs... but I think some small specified area by the water, I would be in favor of it."
With a proposal for concessions services at the state park on the table, the candidates made it clear they would rather see the park stay as a pristine part of Destin.
"I'm not particularly in favor of concessions, but we RV and I've been to state parks where they had little country stores where they were open during a period of time and run well," Foreman said. "It wasn't being done like a hotdog stand, but you could go and pick up a few essentials — if it was like that, I would probably be in favor of that, if it's anything else, I'm not."
When it comes to traffic in Destin, the council candidates agreed that there's a lot to be desired and that improvements were needed.
"It's a constant problem for us," Overdier told the crowd. "It gets even worse during the high traffic tourism season. As councilmen and women, we can look at ways to make roads more accessible and have them go all the way through from one end of town, east to west and north and south."
When it came time for the city council hopefuls to grade the city's current code enforcement efforts, the grades were a mixed bag.
Overdier graded the city harshly, handing out a D+. He said the plus is only because code enforcement responds to situations when they are called.
"But they are not out there looking for violations, they are only out there when people call on them," he said.
With the city's cleanliness as one of his focal points, Pace awarded the city a C grade. Because he has had meetings with them, he acknowledged they have limited resources.
"We talked about protocols that need to be put in place and really revamping what the codes are on the books," he said.
Ramswell gave code enforcement a C- grade, telling the audience that officers do a good job issuing violations, but she's not sure things are being followed up on.
"I'd like to see a whole lot more in terms of cleaning up a lot of the yards that are badly in need," she said.
For his part, Weidenhamer, who serves on the code enforcement board, graded the city's efforts much higher, passing out a B, B- grade.
"I get to see what happens when people do not comply," he said. "I think that if someone has a legitimate complaint and they call code enforcement, code enforcement responds. If there is an ordinance on the books, they will notify those people."
On a "scale of one to 10," Braden gave the city's efforts a 2, saying he has called the city about a violation and it took "in excess of a year" to get the matter cleared up.
Current Councilman Foreman said the process needs to be enhanced compared to what it has been, but funding is challenging.
"When you have one code enforcement officer that has to search the entire city, you have some very serious limitations," he said. "In our last budget process we did recognize that."
Going "right in the middle," Jacobs gave a C grade.
"I know that there has been interest generated to kind of light a fire under code enforcement, there is work being done to improve it," he said.
A candidate forum will be hosted by the Okaloosa County Republican Executive Committee at the Destin City Hall on Wednesday. The forum begins at 5:30 p.m. The eight candidates will be vying for three seats on the City Council when voters take to the polls March 11. The top three vote getters will earn seats on the council. Early voting will be held March 1 to March 8 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Destin Community Center on Stahlman Avenue or at the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections office at 1804 Lewis Turner Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach.