Communication Builds Our Community

Incumbents Are No-Shows at Commission Election Forum

Future Forum Cancelled for Non-Participation

Three challengers seeking two seat on the Lake Wales City Commission held the stage at a Monday evening candidates forum after both incumbents failed to show up for the 90-minute event. The election is four weeks away, slated for Tuesday, April 2.

Carol Gillespie, seeking seat 4 on the five-person commission, along with Brandon Alvarado and Crystal Higbee, both seeking seat 2, shared their ideas and responded to questions from the audience at the forum sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Greater Federation Woman's Club of Lake Wales.

News photo

Carol Gillespie is seeking election to seat 4 on the City Commission

Seat 4 incumbent Danny Krueger and seat 2 incumbent Daniel Williams absences were pointedly noted at the beginning of the forum, which was held and the Woman's Club Auditorium before an audience of 50, and live-streamed on YouTube, where it is available for viewing. "Your commissioners should be readily available to you to answer questions," Higbee told the crowd at one point in the evening.

Five questions had been submitted to the candidates in advance of the forum, focusing on economic development, future water supplies, adaptation to climate change, and the projected surge in population in the city. The fifth question, regarding improving communication between the city and citizens, brought wry comments from the challengers about the failure of the incumbent commissioners to attend, listen, and share their thoughts.

Gillespie used her opening remarks to describe her long service in law before sharing her concerns about the pace and nature of the growth that is impacting Lake Wales, She cited concerns about traffic, the destruction of natural areas, and the rapid depletion of water resources. She advocated following the Lake Wales Envisioned plan to allow growth without destroying quality of life.

Alvarado brought laughs when he described himself as a native Lake Walean, "an endangered species," before relating his deep involvement in the community, including current service on various boards, saying that "community service is one of the most important pillars of my life." He also endorsed the Envisioned effort, saying "it's still just a plan" that needs to have a majority of the commission behind it.

News photo

Brandon Alvarado is one of two challengers seeking seak 2 on the Lake Wales City Commission.

Higbee described her move more than 20 years ago "from a larger city in California" and how she appreciated the small-town feel of Lake Wales. "Carol hit it when she talked about growth," Higbee said.

Asked about economic development and business growth, all three advocated for measured efforts. Gillespie said that "more jobs and infrastructure must work in harmony" but said it was important to require developers to pay impact fees, which are used to avoid passing the cost of new development to existing residents.

Alvarado advocated for new jobs in education and light manufacturing, and new housing in proximity to the downtown area to provide more support for small businesses there. Higbee agreed, telling the audience that keeping local businesses strong helps attract new businesses to the area.

All three candidates spoke favorably of the future of Eagle Ridge Mall, with both Alvarado and Gillespie mentioning a proposal presented in the Envisioned plan that would allow the conversion of portions of the vast parking lot into residential tracts, which Alvarado suggested would help build a local market for businesses there.

News photo

Crystal Higbee is one of two challengers seeking election to seat 2 on the Lake Wales City Commission.

On the topic of communication between citizens and local government, Alvarado said that addressing the commission "shouldn't feel like punishment, like going to the principal's office," citing the body language exhibited during the public comments portion of formal commission meetings.

Gillespie agreed, pointing out that citizens are not permitted to participate in the commission's workshops where they typically reach concurrence on issues. "Commissioners don't have to respond at commission meetings," she said, calling for every city board meeting to be available on video. "Video everything," she said.

Higbee called for regular public forums where "commissioners should be there to take your concerns back to the commission."

Higbee also said she was "worried" when she read that the city's allotted water supply would be exceeded in five years, calling for the city to "slow-roll" development."

Alvarado pointed out that it is impossible to "put a hard pause on development," but called for "infill in the core," saying that "five acres and a single family house is not sustainable." He called for more "cottages and townhomes that are affordable, saying that as a young adult he was being priced out of his hometown by rising housing costs.

The city has already "approved thousands of new homes, and there's not much we can do" about it," Gillespie said, but "in the future we can follow the Lake Wales Envisioned plan. Every project must be consistent with the plan."

All three expressed support for the potential redevelopment of the Walesbilt Hotel, which may soon be back in the hands of the city following a recent court decision. Alvarado called the building a potential "economic driver" for downtown, while Gillespie called it "the diamond of downtown."

Asked about sustainability in the face of rapidly-changing climate, Higbee called for conservation while Alvarado called for up-to-date building codes and the implementation of the "Big Green Network" of environmental lands called for in the Envisioned plan.

Gillespie advocated a list of responses the city could take, including retrofitting existing structures, installing solar panels on city buildings, public vehicle charging stations, and using electric vehicles in the city fleet, saying that the effort would "save us money, reduce emissions, and contribute to health."

Gillespie had focused much of her campaign on sustainability, while her opponent, Krueger, has called climate change a "hoax" perpetrated by the United Nations.

On the topic of parks and recreation, both Gillespie and Alvarado voiced opposition to a proposal to deed city-owned land at Lake Alta to a developer to allow higher-density in a proposed development adjacent to the tract.

"We are besieged with developers wanting to do development in the city" Gillespie said. "I don't see why we are incentivizing any development," Gillespie said. "I haven't been on the front lines, I don't know what kinds of negotiations happen with these developers," she said, but acknowledged that some new development was needed to expand the tax base and "keep the city financially sound."

Gillespie expressed support for an increase in local transportation initiatives to help children access the city's Family Recreation Center pool, located "on the hill" on Burns Avenue.

Asked about a year-old city policy giving the mayor control over proclamations and who may lead a pre-meeting prayer, Gillespie said she didn't understand "why it can't include people of all faiths."

Alvarado agreed, saying that commissioners "represent all of them."

Higbee mentioned a 2020 episode that saw two commissioners walk out of the meeting when an atheist was scheduled to speak. "My good friend {former commissioner Curtis} Gibson exercised his right," Higbee said.

Gibson, who was present at the forum, offered a response to Lake Wales News, saying that "If I could go back in time, I would have changed my actions. I would have stayed and listened," adding that he read the remarks afterwards and they were not offensive, but rather inclusive. Commissioners "represent everybody," he added. "As a leader, the thing to do is recognize and admit it when you're wrong."

Gillespie got perhaps the biggest applause of the night when pointedly asked about Mayor Jack Hilligoss obliquely endorsing the incumbents from the pulpit of the church he pastors. Citing the Constitutional separation of church and state, she said that "churches should stay out of politics...The firmer the wall, the more secure the government and the church will be."

A separate candidate forum that had been planned by Rotary on the Ridge for next Monday has been cancelled. Rotary District Governor Chevon Baccus told Lake Wales News that "Williams said 'no' and we didn't hear from Krueger or Higbee."

The Rotary event has been a popular forum for several years. "We'll try again next year," Baccus said.


Reader Comments(2)

Nonanita writes:

What makes the two incumbents so sure that they don’t need to campaign in an open PUBLIC forum where all residents can hear them and ask questions? Do they think that they have the votes locked up some other way?

lwlioness writes:

Fabulous article! Thanks!