If your favorite city commission candidate doesn’t emerge victorious in Apalachicola’s city elections next month, it won’t be because he or she didn’t try to educate voters, or that voters weren’t interested in what they had to say.
In the most heated election of the past 20 years, and dating back perhaps earlier, the six candidates for two city commission seats have spoken out in a succession of political forums, staking out positions on the issues of the day.
Plus they’ve done the usual personal politicking, not always easy in the grueling heat of summer.
It will all be over by Sept. 17, and the city will have two new commissioners to succeed Mitchell Bartley and Jimmy Elliott, both of whom are wrapping up lengthy political careers.
The six candidates for city commission – Adrianne Elliott, Despina George, Barry Hand, Ramon Lopez, Torben Madson and George Mahr – are about as diverse in ethnicity, gender, occupation and background as any small town could possibly assemble.
Black and white, native born and naturalized American, male and female, this crew runs the gamut in age from Generation Z to a post-World War II Boomer, in occupation from a pastor to an accountant, from a laborer to a lawyer, and in size from tiny to tall. (See sidebar).
In short, this is America.
The forums began July 24 on a fresh note, with an evening at Bowery Station, a downtown bar, that drew four of the six candidates. This non-traditional event, on a Wednesday night, was well-run, and was like a preseason opener in the season to come. They concluded Aug. 8 with one put on for just the mayoral candidates, by the county’s Republican Executive Committee.
The longstanding annual forum hosted by HCOLA (Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola) drew a packed house to the Holy Family Community Center on Monday, Aug. 5. Overseen by the Hill’s most vibrant community activist group, the forum asked questions on everything from water rates to the role of Main Street, and it was here contrasts emerged.
“Our legacy here is right now under threat of being destroyed, the state is looking over us because of our debts,” said Elliott, in her opening statement, stressing her family’s nine generations in the city. “A lot of city assets have fallen in disrepair; we are paying the price for fiscal mismanagement. Our marinas are in shambles.”
Promising to address creation of more affordable workforce housing, Elliott, who works in the hospitality industry, urged the pursuing of policies to preserve the city’s character. “We might turn into something like Boca Raton,” she said.
Madson, her opponent in the Sept. 3 balloting, took a more moderate stance towards the situation. “What we’re dealing with now is not a crisis, it’s a financial problem,” he said. “We need to spend less and take care of our assets.”
Born and raised in Florida, Madson, an attorney, said he met wife Sarah 16 years ago and together they moved to Apalachicola during the BP oil crisis of a decade ago.
He stated from the outset that if elected, he would not seek reelection, and would accept no salary, nor any donations. “I am not a politician, I’m a volunteer,” he said.
First to speak among the next four candidates, vying to win the other seat, was George, an Apalachicola native and granddaughter of Greek immigrants who arrived here via Ellis Island. A CPA who worked in the Tampa area, she said she returned home in 1994 and set up an accounting practice while keeping up with city affairs.
“All that changed in 2014,” she said, noting the Denton Cove low-income housing issue stirred her interest.
“I’ve become outspoken and a frequent critic on a variety of topics,” she said, deploring what she called “the negative effect of backroom deals. I need to put my money where my mouth is.”
Hand, who pastors at Mount Zion Baptist, said “we are experiencing some issues that concern all of us. Having an agenda isn’t a bad thing.”
He said his agenda started at birth, growing up in the city housing authority. “My agenda is important to me because it involves all of us. This is an ever-changing time,” Hand said. “I will provide the best oversight to my ability. Feel my love and compassion for all of you.”
Mahr, a county resident for the past 25 years, now retired from corporate life, said his grandparents, too, were immigrants, and that he comes from a family of nine children, and now has five of his own and seven grandchildren.
“Apalachicola has gone through a lot of change for the last 200 years,” he said, noting that the primary industry it has now is tourism and as a mecca for second homes, noting that 25 percent are owned by people who have home elsewhere.
“We have a responsibility to all the citizens here,” he said. “We have some infrastructure problems, finance problems, that need to be corrected. I have 40 years in finance and operations, I think I can assist.”
Lopez, who works with plant operations at Weems Memorial Hospital, shared that he was born in Mexico, and became an American citizen 24 years ago. “I wanted better,” he said.
He later earned degrees in philosophy and Spanish translation from Kent State University in northern Ohio, and most recently has been active as a soccer coach both for young kids and high schoolers,
“I have been an active member of this community, I like to volunteer,” he said. “I have been a missionary for 20 years, advocating for immigrants, I still advocate for them currently.”
Lopez said he would work to bring more affordable housing. “We need more people that can live here and work here,” he said. "Also I would like to see a clean city; all the parks are pretty much destroyed. I would like to see more volunteer people who work for the city.”
None of the candidates favored building a new City Hall, some noting that it might be an idea taken up in years to come. All supported working towards affordable housing.
“It’s a difficult situation our community is facing. What limited housing we have is being taken off the market, and pricing is high,” said Madson. “It’s expensive to take care of rentals.”
George noted that city-owned lots, once pledged as collateral to pay down the delinquent sewer loan, are now being weighed for possible workforce housing, which might be helped along with SHIP money.
“I don’t believe you can have a successful city without being good to citizens,” Hand said. “Port St Joe had the same issues and they built. This is Apalachicola; I know we can.”
Both Mahr and Lopez noted the housing problem is county-wide. “The Forgotten Coast isn’t forgotten anymore,” Mahr said.
“The most vulnerable members of the community are at stake, young families and those living on fixed income,” Elliott said. “If we don’t have valuable assets we’ll be pushed out and this will become a shell of what it once was and nobody wants to see that.”
The issue that most divided them was that regarding the Community Redevelopment Authority and Main Street. The city authroity, and the private organzation, now split the cost of a full-time director who devotes half of her time to each entity.
George said she did not support having a paid CRA employee. “There is no accountability of time,” she said. “Her supervisor is the chairman of the CRA board who is also chair of the Main Street board.
“All of the money in the CRA is being spent on salary, benefits and an office,” she said. “Those duties can be taken on by other city employees.”
On the other hand, Hand disagreed. “I do support when the CRA is working for our city,” he said. “The CRA has its hands on those things, and the CRA is paying a part of that. It is overloaded, the employees cannot take on no more work. Let’s give the CRA an opportunity, let’s not be so quick to jet it out.”
Mahr, too, supported the current split arrangement with Main Street, noting the CRA director helped secure a $1.6 million grant.
“We’ve been talking for 10 years about our poor water,” he said. “Other city employees are going to take this over? There are only three in the administration and they are overworked. It would be very difficult to find another person to handle it and with this competency level.”
Lopez said he wanted to look into the issue in more depth, and said he was leaning towards placing these CRA duties in the hands of volunteers. “The CRA is a different entity than Main Street director,” he said. “It needs to be a volunteer position, it can be one of us and we can save some money. CRA can have more volunteers and so can Main Street.”
Elliott said volunteers on the CRA board should be carrying out more duties, and said the costs are too much to be sustainable right now, “There are many experienced and educated people in this willing to help,” she said. “And you do have a shadow of doubt, a conflict of interest (with Main Street).”
Madson encouraged a pragmatic approach. “The volunteer board ain't getting the job done, it takes somebody active working on it,” he said. “The current person has secured some grants, it’s nice to see some bacon coming in.
“The focus of the CRA is to focus on improving blighted areas,” he said. “It is important to put pressure on to get results that focus on blighted areas.”
In term of the city manager position, the candidates had shades of differences in their approach, but none supported getting rid of the position entirely.
“We need someone to manage our city, cities all over America have city managers, it’s a good thing,” said Hand. “Let’s give him a chance. No one of these city commissioners can oversee the city now but our city manager can.”
Mahr was strongly supportive. “I believe we need a city manager desperately; he’s done a lot of work since he’s been here,” he said, noting his work on getting the budget and loan debt in order, and his overseeing a decline in staffing from 33 to 29 employees.
“He worked on our debt for our sewer plant, we now collect $46,000 every month to pay down the debt,” Mahr said. “By June 2026 we will be out of debt.”
Lopez said the city should keep the city manager position for the short term. “He is pulling us out of the water for now. I think he’s doing a tremendous job,” he said. “In the long run we need to figure out how to run the city after that.”
Elliott agreed Nalley has been helpful with city assets but felt the position should not be structured for the long term. “We need to take accountability and learn how to run it and run it efficiently,” she said.
“It’s a mess and he’s working through it,” said Madson. “Taking out the city manager will leave us a vacuum, right now we need to focus on our debt. Having a good city manager in play is the best thing for the city.”
George was more skeptical, citing the position’s large salary. “I understand somebody has to be in charge of the office,” she said. “All the positions in the offices of the city have to be reviewed, to make sure we optimize each position. Perhaps the city manager can take on CRA duties.”
Asked how to prevent further increases in water bills, none of the candidates said they could ensure they won’t go up, but each made suggestions on how additional revenue might be secured.
Mahr said he wanted to wait to see a future audit by the Florida Rural Water Association before making any proposals.
Lopez stressed that higher water bills “will hurt a lot of people” and encouraged efforts to “find grants or try to work on different way to fix this problem.”
Elliott said “a lot of water is not being billed. Millions of gallons of water is not being paid for.” She also suggested possibly increasing the rental fees for renting boating slips.
Madson said more scrutiny needs to be paid towards expenses, such as the $62,000 annual price tag for operating streetlights. “There’s a lot of wasted dollars, a lot of money slipping through our fingers,” he said.
George said a key consideration is for the city to keep its word, something she said state officials have not always trusted. “We’re still not doing what we told the state we’re going to do,” she said. “Once we start doing that, we can renegotiate the debt and perhaps reduce the rates.”
Hand said “it is good to note that the debt is decreasing, it is being paid. We have to be very forthcoming in looking at our assets.”
None of the candidates favored any loosening of the current height restriction for construction, and all promised that they would do all they could to attend all city meetings, allowing for emergencies or unforeseen job demands.
“Even a Saturday morning if need be,” said Hand. “Whatever it takes, if we have to go to two meetings a month so be it.”
George suggested that an audio visual system be created that might enable the meetings to be transmitted off site.
“I’m here to serve you, not to serve myself,: said Lopez.
“We all have to be at every meeting,” he said, echoing the sentiments of Elliott, Mahr, Madson and the others.
He also spoke for his fellow candidates about one key tool he will use to add to his arsenal of information.
“If I really don’t know the answer I can Google it,” he said.
NEXT WEEK - A LOOK AT THE MAYOR'S RACE