Trees, traffic, and the expired Gulf Power contract were the three main subjects discussed at the Republican Women of Okaloosa Federation (RWOF) Destin Candidates' Forum and luncheon on Wednesday.
The small ballroom at the Wyndham Garden Fort Walton Beach was filled with about 40 women and men, most of whom wore shades of red or patriotic-themed ensembles. The meeting started with two prayers and a Bible song before a buffet lunch was served and candidates were introduced.
Both mayoral candidates, Gary Jarvis and Scott Fischer, attended and spoke, along with three of the five Destin City Council candidates, Prebble Ramswell, Mark Robertson, and Skip Overdier.
Candidates Rodney Braden and Teresa Rose Hebert did not attend the forum.
Candidates were ushered out of the conference room and then brought back in one-by-one in order to abide by the Sunshine Law. RWOF First Vice President Kathy Foster posed a set list of questions to each candidate including a “homework” question that was previously given to the candidates regarding the city of Destin’s contract with Gulf Power.
Gary Jarvis, who has lived in Destin since 1978, took the podium first and explained how he would set a strict agenda with timelines to reduce Destin City Council meetings from around four hours to a maximum of an hour and a half, stating that the current length of the meetings is due to a lack of leadership.
Jarvis said he believes in transparency when it comes to the Gulf Power contract.
“The city thinks if they purchase the utility and run it themselves, they will be able to decrease utility bills while raising money for the city budget,” said Jarvis. “But you can’t raise profits by lowering utility rates.”
Rather than have the City Council members vote on the issue, Jarvis said the citizens of Destin should vote on it.
“I’d like to have a say in my power bill as an individual homeowner,” he said.
Incumbent candidate Scott Fischer stated he wanted to continue bringing about positive changes that are only partially finished.
“I want to see them through,” Fischer said. “We still have traffic problems, we’re trying to build five parks, and the Gulf Power agreement expired. Everything came to a head at the same time.”
When Foster asked about development in Destin, Fischer said that he’s prepared to try and restrict it until the city can develop the infrastructure needed to support the traffic, 70 percent of which, according to both Fischer and City Council candidate Mark Robertson, is made up of vehicles driving through Destin to get to destinations further east.
“More high rises in this small strip will put tremendous stress on peoples’ ability to drive through. Our intensity and density is almost at the maximum here,” Fischer said.
According to Fischer, the Gulf Power contract was very well-written 30 years ago when it was the least expensive utility company in Florida. Now, however, Gulf Power is the most expensive in the state.
“It gives you cause to want to step back and ask if it’s the best deal,” Fischer said. “Within the limitations of regulatory authority, what are our real options that can bring about a better contract to the city?”
Fischer said that the contract expiration puts the power back in the hands of the city to explore other franchisee options and allow companies to bid on it, or the city council can choose to negotiate a new contract with Gulf Power.
“We’re looking at all options and trying to put together the absolute best deal," Fischer said. "It’s going to take another year or longer until the city council makes a decision."
City council candidate Skip Overdier spoke next, explaining that his 30-year career in the Air Force would help bring much-needed leadership to the council. When Foster asked him about Gulf Power, Overdier said that the city wouldn’t want to buy and operate the power company, but would maybe buy it and sell it to another utility company.
“You can’t predict what will happen in the future but you can look back at the past,” Overdier said. “Gulf Power has sat on councils and boards throughout the city. They’ve had a great past performance, which means a good future performance.”
Overdier said he is also pro-property rights when it comes to development.
“People can develop property in any way they see fit within the rules and laws,” he said.
Incumbent City Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell spoke about increasing the flow of communication during her time on the council by instituting a monthly newsletter and encouraging feedback and dialogue with constituents.
“I really want to see improvements with the traffic,” Ramswell said. “We’ve been looking at a cross-town connector to steer traffic off Highway 98 and have also discussed a ferry. We’re trying to think outside of the box.”
When Foster asked her about spending approximately $100,000 for an arborist to come in and plant trees in Destin for a city beautification project, Prebble said that right now, the council is stuck in the minor details.
“Everyone is confused. People are getting bogged down with details like the diameter of trees, the different types of trees that would look best, and how close they would be planted to the road.”
Mark Robertson addressed RWOF last, beginning by introducing his wife and explaining why “they” are running for City Council. He discussed his time as a chaplain with the military, police, and FEMA.
“The city has some bad faith processes,” Robertson said. “I like to think about it in terms of Bible verses.”
He quoted Luke 11:46, about lawmakers loading people down with burdens. Robertson said he wanted to simplify rules, and provide more parking around the harbor to get people off the roads quicker.
Robertson said that if the city bought the Gulf Power contract, we would be buying something we couldn’t afford and don’t know how to run.
“It would be like the city saying ‘can I buy the electrical system in your house, but not the outlets,” Robertson said.
He suggested renewing the contract for 15 years.
At the end of the meeting, Foster said she was pleased with the number of candidates who attended.
“I was pleased that they came and I think it’s important for everyone to hear their individual viewpoints,” said Foster.
The election is on March 13.