Wednesday Jan. 29, 2003
Three challengers are trying to unseat three-term incumbent Debbie Lightsey, first elected to the Tallahassee City Commission 14 years ago as an environmentalist and neighborhood advocate.
She said her attitude toward growth management has evolved since then, pointing to her votes for the Blair Stone Road extension and incentive programs for businesses. In a recent television ad, she described herself as an “environmental road-builder.”
Her opponents, John Byrne, J.R. Harding and Anthony “Dr. V” Viegbesie haven’t attacked her for being too green, but have gotten on her case for supporting city elections in February and for voting to reduce a buffer between the city’s sprayfield and a southeast Leon County neighborhood after 2015. Lightsey said that voters should decide when to hold the election and that the city’s water- utility ratepayers may have to absorb the cost if the city is forever banned from expanding into the buffer.
A recent graduate of Florida State University law school, Byrne has been active in politics behind the scenes, working on the 2002 campaign of Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River. Byrne, 28, said the city’s utility rates are too high and that the city essentially taxes residents through the electric utility. “The city should not be in the business of making money off its citizens,” he said.
Instead, he said, the city and the state should sell property it owns to private concerns to increase the amount of taxable property in the city. Tallahassee’s property tax rate is low, although the number of parcels that are off the tax rolls is high. Byrne also thinks the city needs to work harder at keeping Florida State and Florida A&M University graduates in Tallahassee. Many highly trained graduates leave for bigger cities, diluting a potentially large pool of talent.
“Students play a large role,” Byrne said. “It’s important to recognize that and work with that. It’s a question of creating homes” for students once they graduate.
J. R. Harding
Harding, a 35-year-old program specialist with the Department. of Education, is campaigning on increasing accountability in city government, offering low-income seniors a homestead exemption and holding elections in November.
“We need to be able to do better with less,” he said, referring to the city’s budget. He’s also against raising utility rates and property taxes.
Harding has spent time working as a consultant and educator on disability rights. A wheelchair user, he has received a number of prestigious political appointments, including one by President George W. Bush to serve on the U.S. Access Board. At a recent candidates forum, he said the city needs to aggressively pursue alternative modes of transportation for wheelchair users, pedestrians and bicyclists. “We have an obligation to provide these choices for these citizens,” he said.
On the election issue, Harding said that a February election does a “disservice” to voters since many are unaware there is an election. And, Harding – like a host of other non incumbents – said the buffer between the sprayfield and neighborhood needs to stay the same. “Keep the promise,” he urged city commissioners.
Elected in 1989, Lightsey continues to be a green vote on the commission and a stickler for following the city’s growth and environmental regulations. She is campaigning as the institutional memory on a board that will definitely see some change. Many people in City Hall and the community commend her for doing her homework and coming to commission meetings having read the agenda.
“I don’t make grandiose promises during campaign season,” she has said at candidate forums, adding that she feels she has served Tallahassee well.
The 55-year-old Lightsey has become an expert on storm water and flooding. She advocates a conservative fiscal policy for the city, often wringing her hands over increased costs and an uncertain economic future for the city.
Her critics often cast her as a knee-jerk environmentalist, but she has supported pro-growth initiatives. Along with Commissioner John Paul Bailey, Lightsey worked on the city’s redevelopment ordinance, which waives some requirements on storm water retention and treatment for developers who rehab blighted properties in the city. The Publix supermarket on Tharpe Street is an example of a project that took advantage of this law, passed by the City Commission in 2001.
Anthony ‘Dr. V’ Viegbesie
Viegbesie, 48, said the city doesn’t need continuity but a change in leadership.
Viegbesie, a Tallahassee Community College economics professor, said the commission “is out of touch with the community, delivering lip service to the people who elected them.”
He also criticizes Lightsey for not supporting a senior homestead exemption and voting twice to extend her term. He said effluent from the city’s wastewater treatment plant should be treated to a higher standard than it is now. And regarding the two-thirds of a mile buffer, “commitments were made, commitments should be kept,” he said at a recent candidates forum.
Viegbesie is a member of Bethel AME Church and political action chairman for the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Last year, he criticized the City Commission in a letter to the Tallahassee Democrat for “eliminate(ing) diversity” when appointing Allan Katz after the death of Commissioner Charles Billings.
Viegbesie wants the city to take greater advantage of TCC and the two universities, saying they could “provide training and manpower for needed manufacturers.” He also said the city should not simply dig storm water ponds but should work with university experts to address flooding and water-quality problems. He also thinks the city could earn revenue by becoming a hub for conventions in North Florida.