At the Tiger Bay debate Thursday afternoon for the Orange County Commission races, candidates Betsy VanderLey and Bobby Olszewski squared off for District 1, and Emily Bonilla and Ted Edwards made their cases as to why they should be elected in District 5 to an audience of Orange County luminaries and officials.

They answered questions on the issues facing Orange County, including the West Orange Relief School, the Lake Pickett projects, TDT funds, and the recovery in the wake of the Pulse nightclub attacks.

Olszewski and VanderLey, competing for the vacant District 1 seat, tended to clash more of the two groups — in his opening statement, Olszewski took sly shots at VanderLey by suggesting, as he has in the past, that she is benefitting in the race from land her family owns in the district, and that her employers are making money off her running.

She said neither of those things were true — she isn’t employed by anyone and her family doesn’t own land in the area.

But otherwise, the candidates all stayed civil and tried to keep their messages focused on the issues rather than attacking one another. Moderated by TV anchor Mike Synan, the debate moved briskly as the candidates hit their talking points and moved on.

On how to pay for improvements to the SunRail, Edwards said it would be good to implement a sales tax and direct the money toward the SunRail — that is, if people want it; and rider numbers may indicate otherwise.

Bonilla disagreed, saying they shouldn’t raise taxes and instead allocate money from elsewhere.

On the issue of the West Orange Relief School, Synan asked the candidates if they would bring it back up again for more discussion. Olszewski said he wouldn’t be opposed to it in an open forum, as any input could potentially better things.

Plus, he said, the politicians were really to blame, playing both sides dishonestly and saying different things to different groups of people, which he would never do if elected.

VanderLey held the opposite opinion, saying they had already reached a compromise on the issue and it would be time-consuming to dredge it all back up again.

“I wouldn’t bring it back up for discussion,” she said. “That’s the nature of compromise. Not everybody gets everything they want. They may get a little bit of what they want.”

On working with the school board more in general, Edwards said he was all for working with the school board on projects, but that some of the ordinances in place involving school placement could be too strict. While they say schools can’t be located in rural areas, some rural areas have since become more urbanized, but people get angry anyway.

Bonilla said it would be better for everyone if developers thought more about proper places to put schools and less about how to get more money for themselves.

Olszewski and VanderLey

On the issue of spending $45 million to finish the Orange County Convention Center’s Phase II, Olszewski and VanderLey both said it should be considered whether the money is going to a place that will benefit the county. Edwards said as a supporter of the arts and culture, he was all for funding the OCCC for the good of the community. Bonilla said she would have to look at more details on the funding.

“We should look at how these taxes benefit the community,” she said. “And look at other types of tourism, like agricultural tourism and performing arts, rather than just Disney and I-Drive.”

One of the final questions Synan asked gave each candidate a platform to address negative advertising aimed at them.

VanderLey addressed Olszewski’s critique of her from earlier, when he said she held a fundraiser event at a gun range. That seemed tasteless to him in light of high-profile gun violence stories around the country. He said mixing national events into a local election seemed wrong to him, implying that’s what VanderLey had done.

She replied by saying the fundraiser in question had been held by the Police Benevolent Association.

“I can hardly think of anyone more responsible with their weapons than the police,” she said. “I’m proud of that.”

Olszewski himself said he had been the victim of coordinated attacks from county officials trying to put VanderLey in office instead of him, and maintained he would be a different kind of official, one who acted with more honesty and transparency.

When Synan asked the candidates to raise their hands if they had been the victim of negative campaign ads, Bonilla was the only one who said she hadn’t seen any against her.

At that, Synan said, “Can anyone introduce this woman to politics?” to a rousing laugh.

Edwards said he wasn’t a fan of negative ads painting him as a corporate downtown lawyer who doesn’t know how the “other side” lives.

“I lived on a ranch in Okeechobee,” he said. “I was president of Future Farmers of the USA. I know rural life and agriculture. I’m not some urban lawyer who doesn’t know how to get his hands dirty. I put up my own campaign signs.”

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