Norriego Point opened the conversation Thursday as three men vying for Destin City Council were put in the hot seat at a Destin Library-hosted candidate forum.
Boat captain Andy Stempki, small business owner Rodney Braden and longtime incumbent Jim Foreman discussed issues from red light cameras to the city’s budget to water quality. Each candidate had about 90 seconds to answer the questions from The Log’s readers, posed by moderator William Hatfield, Destin Log editor.
Each had something distinctive to offer: Stempki, his youthful energy; Foreman, experience; and Braden, a lifetime of living in Destin.
The questions started rolling with Destin’s most valuable jut of land.
“I'd like to see it back like it was,” said Braden, adding that he would hate to see rocks or walls around Norriego Point. “But something must be done.”
“I’d hate to harden it. But leaving it alone is not the answer,” he said of the “focal point of Destin Harbor.”
Stempki said he would like to see part of a potential $65 million dollar settlement from RESTORE funds go to reinforcing the point. He added that rocks, as opposed to steel and concrete, would be the best solution.
Foreman and Braden answered “nay” to the next question concerning adding red light cameras.
Stempki said that though he dislikes “Big Brother,” he agrees that it is an important public safety measure.
“How would you limit the appearance of special interests?” was the next question.
Foreman responded, “With charter limits, it’s pretty difficult to do anything unethical or illegal.”
Braden said, “I don't think we have any concern with that.”
Stempki said everyone has special interests but that none were more important than anyone else’s.
Protecting the dog park and library were a no-brainer for the candidates, with all in agreement that these were assets to the community. When sidewalks were brought up, however, each had more to say.
Braden said he would be happier if sidewalks were 6 feet as opposed to 10 feet. Foreman agreed that “one size does not fit all,” but that providing sidewalks for schoolchildren was important.
Stempki remained positive on all three. “Whenever a community invests money in places the entire community can come, it's money well spent,” he said.
Destin’s recent “poor” water quality ratings came up next, and all agreed that they would investigate the source, as well as maintain public awareness. The three were also in agreement that the single biggest asset in Destin is its water, whether at the Harbor or the beach.
No candidate supported Destin having its own police department, and all were in agreement that continuing to use the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office was the best option.
The single biggest issue, however, was not so cut and dry.
For Foreman, that was economic development; for Stempki, the Town Center; for Braden, the traffic.
“What are three words that best describe you?” Hatfield asked the candidates.
Stempki was creative, witty, and a problem-solver. Foreman was steady, reliable, honest. Braden said, “I say what I mean, I mean what I say.”
No candidate adhered to the three-word guideline on the next question: What three words describe your governing style?
Braden passed. Foreman’s was collaboration between the Council and the Destin city staff, making sure “we’re all on the same sheet of music.” Stempki also said teamwork in so many words.
To both Stempki and Foreman, fixing Norriego Point was the best way to spend NRDA and RESTORE Act funds, and while to Braden that was important, he said creating more parking was another good use.
The most important topic at all levels of politics didn’t skip this forum, and the candidates were asked how to bring economic development to Destin.
Braden supported wait-out-the-bad-economy strategy, and Stempki and Foreman agreed that it was not the role of the government to create jobs, though it was in the council’s purview to promote good jobs and development.
Stempki added that redevelopment in the Main Street area was the best way to bring in those jobs.
Governmental budgeting was the next topic, and Foreman led.
“We just finished the budget for 2013. It can't get any thinner than that,” he said.
Stempki said the only way to improve was to bring “green” initiatives to the council.
Braden joked that he would cut city councilmen’s pay, to which Foreman replied jovially, “You’re misinformed.”
Nobody was in support of acquiring land through eminent domain, though Braden and Stempki said it might be an option if, and only if, it was to the betterment of the community, and then really only where traffic was concerned. Stempki singled out an old convenience store in the Main Street area, but for Foreman, eminent domain was not an option at all.
Each candidate was able to address the biggest misconception about his campaign next.
For Braden that was that he would be changing things by himself, for Foreman that he wouldn’t listen, and for Stempki that he was too young.
“Age” was Foreman’s response to the next question, “What sets you apart from the other candidates?”
The audience laughed, and Foreman continued that one quarter of his life was spent as a city councilman, and that his experience sets him apart.
Stempki’s counterpoint was, “I'm young, I'm energetic … I can bring two different points of view together and move forward.”
Braden said his lifelong Destin residency, 45 years, has made him passionate about “giving back” to his city.
The final question of the evening was emailed from a reader: “Considering the restrictive and reduced budget that the city of Destin presently has, what would you do to expand the city's boundaries for additional ad valorem tax purposes?"
Though Braden and Stempki both viewed annexing Walmart into the city of Destin as a viable solution to increase ad valorem taxes, Foreman shut it down. He said it could not be done automatically, and that a referendum is basically impossible.
And thanks to their concise answers, the candidates were asked for their closing statements a half hour before time was up.
Foreman hit the high notes of his campaign platform; to maintain the lowest city tax rates in Florida, promote economic development for jobs, promote Destin as a world-class destination, maintain beaches, and maintain openness of city government.
Stempki said that he hopes whoever takes the elected seat takes it seriously to protect Destin’s cultural heritage, its Norriego Point and its standing as a “crown jewel.”
Braden said he wants to keep Destin the way it is, as he has known it his whole life. He added that he has something that cannot be purchased, “that is common sense.”
Hatfield closed by encouraging everyone to vote Nov. 6 or earlier. Early voting begins Oct. 27.
Walton Sun/Destin Log reporter Molly Mosher was live tweeting the city council candidate forum tonight at the Destin library. Follow along by clicking on her twitter stream.
Click on the link at top left to learn more about the candidates and their stand on Destin issues.