At the County Commission District 5 debate forum held Wednesday evening by the League of Women Voters, the four candidates for the seat clashed on a number of issues from developments to taxes, but all of them expressed a desire to see Orange County better itself, only differing on how they thought it should happen.
Incumbent Ted Edwards and his challengers, Timothy McKinney, Gregory Eisenberg and Emily Bonilla sat in a row on a stage in a small, crowded room in the Kiwanis Club of South Orlando. It was an intimate area and made the candidates’ occasional quips, jabs and barbs at one another more personal as they sat so close together.
A central and heated part of the debate was the Lake Pickett development, approved in July, which will let two large developers build thousands of homes across the Econlockhatchee River in a space traditionally known as a rural area.
Edwards, a proponent of the projects, defended his support of them to a crowd that was not overly receptive to his ideas. Much of his answers throughout the hour-long debate centered around the idea that Orange County didn’t need saving — that it was already great and had much to be proud of in its tourism, in UCF and more.
His first defense of Lake Pickett was that there was already a lot of urbanization around the area where the developments would be coming.
“At Lake Pickett, there is a high school, a middle school, a Publix, a McDonalds, a gas station, everything you see in an urban area,” he said. “These projects go through a lot of vetting. They’re real exciting projects we’ll be proud of once they’re in.”
Later, he added that there was another project, many years ago, that had a similar reaction to the one people have now towards Lake Pickett.
“People said it’s too rural, it’s environmental land, it’s too far out,” Edwards said. “The project was Avalon Park. Avalon Park, one of premiere communities we have here. We’re a growing, vibrant, urban county. We are effective at growth management. Horizons West is outside an urban service area, and that’s 20,000 acres. But where else would people live?”
Eisenberg hit on a refrain throughout the debate of a transparent society, one in which things got done aboveboard and efficiently. He applied the narrative to a number of different topics. On Lake Pickett, Eisenberg maintained a neutral stance, saying he understood peoples’ concerns and wanted to address the thousands of signatures on a petition against the project, but also it was necessary to develop the area to bring water piping to regions like Wedgefield and Bithlo.
On issues like gentrification, internet service providers, and term limits for elected officials, Eisenberg positioned himself as a young millennial voice, tech-savvy, with an evolving point of view and less of a tendency toward partisan ideas.
Bonilla touted her business and environmental record throughout the debate as proof she wouldn’t be beholden to developers or special interests, juxtaposing herself with Edwards, who she claimed was.
On the issue of higher wages for firefighters — of which every candidate agreed would be a good thing — Bonilla was the only one to bring up equal pay for women, saying in issues regarding wages, there were other ways to solve problems without raising taxes.
“[Women] do get less pay than men,” she said. “We deserve equal pay as well. As far as using money from different places, we don’t need to raise taxes. More property taxes came in last year, and we can reallocate some and use it more wisely.”
She also maintained the biggest thing to do to fix homelessness and poverty in the county is add more jobs.
McKinney had a vocal base of fans at the debate, with raucous cheers and whoops following several of his answers. He positioned himself as a populist alternative to Edwards’ corporate interests, hitting an emotional note and saying he was in the race out of a love for the community and desire to change.
“My phone number is on back of all the literature I hand out,” he said. “I have a proven record of sacrificing and putting myself aside. I can meet the needs of voters. I am not running for paycheck. I didn’t know what the position pays. I am running because I must run. Real people whose lives depend on it need me to make change.”
He said he would work hard to make change on all the issues brought up during the debate, from red light cameras to helping the homeless to internet service providers. In response to McKinney’s comment that he would work hard to raise the pay for firefighters, Edwards said it was “the board that makes decisions, not Mr. McKinney,” and said everything that comes before the board goes through rigorous negotiations.
McKinney’s overall theme was a desire to get government out of citizens’ pockets and stop monopolies on industries like internet service providers and energy. He added that he’d be voting yes on Amendment 4, to allow more widespread solar energy choices in the county.
Both Eisenberg and Edwards hit McKinney on the issue of tax liens filed against him for failing to pay his taxes. If he can’t keep up with his taxes, Eisenberg and Edwards said they questioned his ability to manage a budget for the county. McKinney did not address the charges during the debate, but an Orlando Sentinel story has him explaining that he fell behind on taxes while caring for a dying relative.
On the issue of gentrification in areas like the Milk District and Thornton Park, the candidates clashed. Edwards said he didn’t like the term ‘gentrification’ for what was in talks to happen in the Milk District — he would rather see it as meeting the demands of people who want to move to Orlando.
“When you look at areas like Thornton Park, they fixed up homes and made it a more prosperous community,” he said. “In demographics, more people want to come in and live closer to downtown. These are great projects. I don’t think it should be gentrification.”
At that, Eisenberg bristled — he said Edwards should stop acting like he cares about the millennial generation when he has done “nothing” for the UCF area so far as better bike and pedestrian lanes, which has been a cornerstone of Eisenberg’s campaign.
But the issue that cropped up the most was, above all, the Lake Pickett development and others that could come in the future.
Attendees wanted to know why they should trust each candidate to keep things out of the hands of big developers. Eisenberg said he would be fiscally conservative and never waste money, and Bonilla said her record of environmental preservation proved people could count on her.
Edwards doubled down on his support for Lake Pickett.
“When citizens come before board, I base my decisions on what is best for residents, and for the future of Orange County,” he said. “When I talk to staff, the staff said yes, [the Lake Pickett projects] are good projects, they address infrastructure, there’s lots of open space, they’re eco-friendly, they’ll use natural grasses. You might not agree with it, so that’s how you’re going to vote.”
This prompted a swift comeback from McKinney: “I won’t ask staff what’s best. I’ll ask citizens what’s best for them.”