On Monday, August 9, the Palms West Chamber of Commerce held what was sure to be the first of many candidate forums with candidates and incumbents running for the District Six and District Two seats of the County Commission. Running for District two were incumbent County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, and candidates Andrew Schaller, Michael Jackson and John Carroll. Jackson is Santamaria’s Democratic opponent in the primary, which is dated for August 24. Schaller is running on a No Party Affiliation, and Carroll is running as a Republican for the election in November. Schaller and Carroll will take on the Democratic candidate who emerges from the primary on August 24. The forum got heated at some points with Santamaria’s opponents casting doubts on the way the incumbent Commissioner was doing his job, citing issues such as his recent votes on the Medical Arts District and castings questions on how he had helped the Glades community. Santamaria defended himself fiercely and very adequately by pointing to his record on both topics and with his community involvement for more than thirty years in the community.
The meeting began with the introduction of the luncheon sponsors, including Leonard Morro, of All About You Catering and Roma Ristorante in Lake Worth, and also Debbie Robinson, of Vita Health, a state-mandated agency that supplies health care coverage for those who normally can’t get it.
“I would like to thank the Chamber for hosting this event,” said Morrow. “I wish good luck to all the candidates. We serve good food at our restaurant and also with our catering service. We don’t just serve Italian food. We do all kinds of corporate events and weddings. We travel everywhere. The restaurant is located in Lake Worth. We’re a family restaurant.”
Robinson, an enrollment supervisor with the West Palm Beach-based Vita Health, spoke about the services of that agency and how that agency helped those who could not find health insurance. She said it was the mission of Vita Health Care to provide insurance for those between the ages of one and sixty-five who could not otherwise find health care coverage.
“Vita was a health care plan created by the Florida Legislature,” said Robinson. “We were trying to provide health care coverage for those who are uninsured in Palm Beach County. There are approximately 273,000 people under the age of sixty-five who do not have health care coverage. The program was created to help those who are uninsured and not those who have access to health care already. Some of the things that are covered include hospitalization, emergency room care, mammograms, annual physical checkups, prescription drugs and other services. There is an application process. For more information, call our customer service department or look at our website.”
Palms West Chamber of Commerce President and Chairman of the Board Carmine Priore III then asked the candidates forum for District Six and Two to take their seats on the stage. He thanked and acknowledged the members of the Government Affairs Committee for their involvement in putting the forum together. He also introduced the moderator for the event, newscaster and Wellington resident Jim Sackett, a well known face in the community who had been on Channel Five for many years.
“Today’s forum is presented by the Palms West Chamber of Commerce’s government affairs committee,” said Priore III. “I would like to acknowledge our vice chair Gina Riscati, and other members who are in attendance today. There are some question cards on the table, but we might not get to all of them. Our moderator is well known. He’s a familiar face not only on WPTV Channel Five but also as a long-time member of the community. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce today’s forum moderator Jim Sackett.”
Sackett asked the candidates to introduce themselves with Republican candidate John Carroll, on the far left of the stage, going first. Carroll spoke of his background with the PBSO as well as his beliefs in smaller government and the need to stop waste and corruption within the County government.
“I have been with the PBSO for 35 years,” said Carroll. “I just completed my 25 years with the PBSO and retired as captain. We must stop the waste and spending within our government. I believe in smaller government, and I believe we must stop spending money we don’t have. I was brought up in a working family, and when things were tough we pulled in our belts. We did more with less. That’s what is going on with our County and our governments. We must stop spending money.”
Incumbent District Six County Commissioner Jess Santamaria spoke of his service to the Palms West Chamber of Commerce and how he hoped to continue to serve the community and residents in the future.
“I am the co-founder of the Palms West Chamber of Commerce,” said Santamaria. “I was on the Board of Directors for six years. I was Chairman of the Chairman’s Club for five years. I am on the Board of Trustees. I am one of the four members of the Chamber’s Hall of Fame. Over the past 27 years, I have been ninety-percent supportive of the Chamber’s projects, and the only projects I did not support were ones that would be harmful to the 99 percent of the residents of the western communities. No one has done more for the Palms West Chamber and residents than I have. I fully intend to serve this Chamber and residents for many, many more years to come.”
Democratic opponent Michael Jackson spoke of his business, professional and other experience for the position of Commissioner, and he felt that made him the best candidate for District Six. He also spoke of the fact that he was born and grew up in the Glades community so he understood a lot of what was going on in that community.
“I was born and raised in District Six,” said Jackson, “and specifically in the Glades community. I have twenty years experience and that has put me in the position from an educational and professional standpoint to offer myself as a candidate, and I feel the best candidate to support District Six. I served District Six as an educator, a former city Commissioner, and I also worked in South Bay, and for the South Florida Water Management District. I thought I would come back and give back to the community. I understand and recognize the significance of what is going on in County government at this time. I feel strongly that I am the best candidate that can represent you.”
No Party Affiliation Candidate Andrew Schaller said he was running for the seat, and felt that with his No Party Affiliation, he was independent of the political process which was a good thing. He also pointed to his years of service as a business owner and the fact that he had lived in District Six for twenty years. As for his family background, he said he came from parents who had a strong work ethic and took very few days off from work.
“I am a business owner,” said Schaller. “I have a strong financial background. You don’t learn work ethic. It’s instilled in you. I believe government should be run by the private sector where the trust still matters. Working with the county has given me that experience. I know I could do a more positive and more effective job of representing us.”
Next came comments from the District Two Candidates. Former School Board Member Paulette Burdick said she was running for that seat based on her experience working with budgets and other issues with the Palm Beach County School District. Given what had just happened with yet another County Commissioner being indicted, she also spoke of how people in Palm Beach County were facing a crisis in public trust.
“We in Palm Beach County are facing a crisis in public trust,” said Burdick, “which has undermined our economic, political and financial pillars in our community. In these times of economic stress and difficulty for all of us, that I’m asking you to consider my experience and motivation to let me represent you in the County. My experience includes developing a 2.7 billion dollar budget and in building ninety new and replacement schools. Over the past sixteen years, I feel I understand the needs of the residents of Palm Beach County.”
Republican Candidate Sherry Lee, who was a Realtor and a homemaker, said she was running for District Two because she wanted someone new and different to replace the current type of Commissioner holding office. She spoke of the recent departure of former Commissioner Jeff Koons as a signal of the end of “business as usual in Palm Beach County.”
“For me, his departure signaled the end of business as usual in Palm Beach County,” said Lee. “I’ve never held public office before. I want to usher in a new era where my constituents can have a voice at the table. I’m a mom, and I have been a small business owner for the past twenty-six years. I believe that government, taxes and spending are out of control. I’m tired of politicians taxing and spending. I am tired of politicians who are out of touch. If we want economic recovery, we need government reform. We need to get the government off our backs and back on our side. I am one of you.”
After the opening comments, Sackett asked a series of questions. The first one was where were the three primary goals the candidates had if elected to office. Carroll said his goals were to eliminate wasteful spending, address the foreclosure crisis and also address the cancer cluster issue.
“We must maintain our current level of services without raising taxes,” said Carroll. “There is duplication of services. We can have less government.”
Santamaria said that that it was his intention of continuing to be a public servant and that pressure must be kept on government officials to keep them honest and ethical. There was a huge problem in the current government with deals being cut by Commissioners, and that had come out with four out of the seven Commissioners had been indicted or had admitted guilt, with the recent one being Commissioner Jeff Koons.
“My problem is the problem that has been proven in the last several years,” said Santamaria, “when four out of the last seven Commissioners have been in jail or had admitted guilt. The problem is we have an abuse of power, and it is my intention to set an example of the true meaning of public service. I believe I have done that for the past several years.”
Michael Jackson said that his goals were people, economic development and fiscal management. He felt you had to start off with people and end with people, and if you did not treat people with respect than all the other areas were for naught.
“I will be a Commissioner that will listen to the people,” said Jackson. “I will have an open door policy, and to listen to those who have issues with County Government. I will be a Commissioner that will invite people to participate in the process. I also will look at economic development in a way that’s comprehensive and inclusive.”
Andrew Schaller said his number one priority was to represent District Six and return it to the people, and he felt that the District needed a Commissioner who was accessible and open to the public.
“Second was accountability,” said Schaller. “We need results driven performance, and the same performance standards that are set in the private sector. We need to address housing and unemployment. We need to pursue alternative job creation ideas. They are equally important.”
Paulette Burdick, candidate for District Two, said that what was critical in the mix was “budget, budget, budget.” For the next three years, she said, due to the economic times, the Commissioners were going to have to be forced to consider cuts, and they would have to know where to cut.
“It’s budget, budget, budget,” said Burdick. “For the next three years, we will have to know where to trim and cut. That will be the same in state and federal governments. I also have sat on the Business Development Board for many years. We need to recruit and retain business in Palm Beach County. This is the perfect time to recruit and retain them.”
Sherry Lee, also candidate for District Two, said that in light of the recent scandal, what she felt would be appropriate would be a review of the one and half million dollars in projects already on the books to make sure they were on the level.
“I want to see if there were any inappropriate actions on those projects,” said Lee. “I also want to implement a sunset review provision that would enable us to go back and look at them on a regular basis yearly or every six months. We may need to go back and review them. I also think we need to create jobs and stimulate the economy.”
The next question was whether the candidates supported cutting services or reducing rates. Santamaria said that it was his intention to cut dollars and not reduce services and reduce services if people could not do without them. Jackson also said that he would eliminate services that were not needed and look at ways to reduce the tax rates. Schaller said that he believed that everything needed to be on the table and that the community needed to define what it felt was an acceptable level of service. Both Burdick and Lee said they would not vote to increase taxes as it made it harder for people to live and work in the community and stay here. Lee also said that there were some services that needed to be cut, and that the County Commissioners, like other representatives, needed to look at where they should cut. Carroll said that he supported less taxes because increasing tax rates were what was killing businesses, and stopping businesses from community to the community. Without new businesses in the community, he said, the economy would not pick up.
The next question was about the medical arts district or the inland port. Jackson said he would support the inland port and the medical arts district, and he said that Commissioner Santamaria had voted against the medical arts district.
“Who am I to stand in the way of a dream,” said Jackson, “and block such a dream. Commissioner Santamaria mentioned it as a pipedream. I look at it as an opportunity to help develop those initiatives in those communities and those areas in that part of the County.”
Schaller concurred and said that “yesterday’s dreams were tomorrow’s realities,” and if it wasn’t for pipedreams, we would not have a lot of the medical advances.
“When a community gets behind a project, it is 6,000 jobs,” said Schaller. “It may not be perfect, but it has to be a dream to be realized. We have to start somewhere.”
Burdick said she supported such a proposal as well, and said it was a good way to create jobs. She also pointed to FAU’s medical and other programs. She also said she hoped more communities would come up with ways to create jobs.
“This particular industry is part of Palm Beach County’s clustering,” said Burdick. “It follows a plan that was put in place. I will be supporting this project.”
Lee also said she supported it but as long as the endeavor came in on its own without incentives from the County and that the County did not need to abandon its own zoning and other laws.
“I don’t think we need to spend or expand tax payer dollars,” Lee said. “If a business entity wants to come in and create jobs, it’s great. We should make the regulatory process easier for them to do so.”
Carroll concurred and said that he supported the medical arts district and also the inland port, and also a State College. When things like this took place, he said, thousands of jobs were created.
“Businesses do better,” said Carroll. “Businesses open up around these places and they flourish. We all know that’s what we need. We need a commission that will vote yes on these things.”
Santamaria said that talk was cheap and he wanted action rather than talk. As for job creation, he felt, he had done more to produce jobs personally himself right in the community as a developer and then after that career in other ways.
“I have been behind eight or nine commercial developments,” said Santamaria. “The first golf course, the first bank, the first gas station, the first hotel, and I have been providing jobs for this community. Talk is cheap. I am the people’s candidate. I am not a special interest candidate. I will not just do favors for developers and special interests.”
The next question was how each candidate planned to help and diversity the Glades and the Western communities so they were less dependent on agriculture. Schaller suggested that maybe they needed to bring back some of the packing plants and some of the past efforts to make that area more successful. Burdick said that the answer lay in partnerships with the community and with other agencies to spur job growth. Lee concurred with Burdick, but also said that tourism and other efforts were still important. Carroll said that there should be an inland port and there should be jobs. He felt that the Commission had failed the Glades.
“Many of you have probably never been to downtown Belle Glade,” said Carroll. “Some of you might think you are in a third world country. We have done nothing to help them. Talk is cheap. Let’s do something. Let’s do something for the Glades by creating jobs.”
Santamaria said that funding had come from the County in the form of 404 million dollars to help the Glades so there were some action taking place, but there would be more. The area had a new hospital and water treatment plant. That aid had been his number one priority. He also was looking into other ways to help polish “the diamond in the rough” that was this beautiful community, and to make better use out of some of the marinas and other waterfront property.
“I just met with the Belle Glade City Manager,” said Santamaria. “We want to make the Belle Glade marina a resort. I have put 20,000 of my own money into vocational courses for the kids out there as well.”
Jackson said that he felt that a multidisciplinary approach was necessary to help the Glades community and that he had a lot to do with the water treatment facility as he was one of the Board members of the Glades Utility Department.
“I was able to look at developing the infrastructure that was put in place,” said Jackson. “I will also look at the economic issues around agriculture and look at ways of diversifying the growth for grene markets and green type industries.”
The next question was about PBSO and PBCFR budgets. Burdick and Lee said there were some difficult issues related to both budgets, and care needed on what needed to be cut and what needed to be retained. Carroll said that more cuts needed to be made to the current budgets. Santamaria said he supported some further cuts, but that doing an across the board cut “did not take any brains.” Jackson also supported cuts but said he would work with County administration to see where they would be needed. Schaller said that cuts were needed and if the Sheriff objected they could take the item to Tallahassee to the legislature.
“We have an obligation to challenge his budget,” said Schaller. “If he wants to object, let’s go. We would have someone else watching over us in the way we do our jobs.”
The last question was about the role of government in economic development. Lee said that she believed government should pave the way for economic development and help businesses get more accomplished.
“I believe in limited government,” said Lee. “The role of government is to be consistent and have a very public process.”
Carroll is that the role of government was to help business and not tax everyone out of business.
“Our role is to not tax everyone out of existence,” said Carroll, “but to do things in a way that will increase business.”
Santamaria said that the role of government was to help people and not just fund projects to benefit the rich.
“The problem we’ve had in the past is that government in the past has provided incentives to enrich the rich,” said Santamaria.
Jackson said that local government needed to help projects get moving, and even if they looked like dreams like the medical arts district.
“They can get beyond the dream stage and give people the opportunity to move beyond them,” said Jackson.
Schaller said a level playing field was important and equal opportunities for everyone to succeed.
“If I can make it anyone can do it,” said Schaller. “I believe that government needs to be a conduit for success and not a roadblock.”
Burdick said she felt innovation was key from government and the private sector and a good working relationship with both was key to moving ahead in these difficult times.
“Innovation is critical to Palm Beach County and the State of Florida,” said Burdick, “and that is critical to developing and supporting our infrastructure.”
For more information about the Palms West Chamber of Commerce, contact them at (561) 790-6200 or check out their website at www.palmswest.com. For more information about Roma Ristorante or All About You Catering, contact them at (561) 966-6969. For more information about Vita Health Care, contact them at 1-866-930-0035 or check out their website at www.vitahealth.org.