By REID TUCKER
DeFuniak Springs City Council elections are set for next week, and the two Seat 1 candidates got a chance to make a case to the public as to why they should be picked for the job.
The candidates, Mac Work and Janie Griffith, met with a sizeable crowd at a DeFuniak Springs Business and Professional Association-hosted question-and-answer style forum on Wednesday, May 8. Work and Griffith fielded questions on a variety of topics, but, predictably, most involved attracting new jobs and balancing the budget. While each had their own stance, Work and Griffith’s policy positions on those two main issues were pretty similar.
Work, who only recently resigned his seat on the Council in an unsuccessful bid for the office of mayor, is essentially running for re-election, having served on the board for the better part of the last two years. He said, unlike two years ago, he hadn’t made many campaign promises. Having been on the Council during a period when 17 new businesses came on-line and major strides were taken in balancing the budget, with revenues now $1.5 million ahead of expenditures, Work was to the point when it came time to make his pitch.
“I had some platform items and within the first six months all of them were taken care of, so I shifted from those to looking for new businesses and getting the budget under control and we’re currently still doing that,” he said. “It’s an ongoing fight to balance the budget. You can’t turn an aircraft carrier around in Lake DeFuniak very quickly, but we’re getting there.”
Griffith, a member of the Planning Board and Tourism Board going back to 2011, the same year she last ran for a Council seat, said openness between the board members, city staff and public was crucial if progress is to be made on all fronts. She also said she is prepared to do her part as a Council member to see the business community grow while helping to find ways to get the budget to shrink. Griffith said she will draw on 18 years’ worth of experience as the manager of Walton County School District’s technology budget to achieve those goals, but, like Work, she avoided making any explicit campaign promises.
“I didn’t keep any promises from last time I ran because I didn’t make any, and I don’t have any to make for the future or to talk about tonight,” Griffith said. “I just feel like we need to have open communication and to take care of our budget.”
The candidates had differing opinions when discussion turned to the possibility of expanding the city limits to include outlying unincorporated communities – specifically Woodlawn. Work was against such a move, speaking at length about the expense of bringing utilities to newly annexed areas and the difficulty associated with bringing all homeowners with adjoining property on board. Griffith was not opposed to the idea, and she pointed out that new utilities customers could be a great untapped revenue source for the city, though she tempered her argument by saying a thorough cost-benefit analysis should be done before going ahead with any large-scale annexation plans.
Neither Work nor Griffith liked the idea of combining the city’s fire department with Walton County’s or of entering into a mass sewer and water expansion agreement with the city of Freeport. Griffith said that local taxpayers already felt enough of a squeeze due to the still-slow national economy and increased federal taxes, while long-term planning on both cities’ parts is needed if such a project was ever to come to pass.
Griffith returned to her idea of a 5-, 10- and 15-year plan when the question of recruiting new businesses came up, saying the city first needed to identify what kinds of businesses it wanted to attract, what infrastructure those businesses need to set up shop as quickly as possible and how to go about constructing that infrastructure. Work agreed, though he added an increased focus on providing more vocational training opportunities for the local labor force to the list, saying that DeFuniak’s lower population figures and limited skilled labor pool held the area back when it came to recruiting high-paying employers.
As to new city buildings, Work and Griffith agreed that a new City Hall shouldn’t be in the cards right now, considering the current building is able to meet the needs of local government for the foreseeable future. Conversely, both were in favor of a new DeFuniak Springs Police Department headquarters going in at the former site of the Walton County Health Department. Work and Griffith also said the municipal airport should become one of the city’s primary economic engines, and both commended the progress that has been made to expand and improve the airport with new construction at the site.
Finally, the candidates held nearly identical views on the Council members’ roles, or really non-roles, when it comes to managing the day-to-day operation of the city. Work and Griffith expressed their beliefs that the board members should work together with city staff and employees and should leave management to the heads of the various departments. Cooperation between all members of the city’s “team” was a crucial component of good governance, they said.
City Council Seat 1 elections will be held Tuesday, May 21.