A debate between the five candidates vying for a spot on Gulfport’s City Council hit on topics ranging from carbon footprint reduction, to ways to strengthen code enforcement and questions about the “Defund the Police” narrative.
Candidates Mike Bauer (challenger, Ward 2), Christine Brown (incumbent, Ward 2), Michael Fridovich (incumbent, Ward 4), Richard Fried (challenger, Ward 4) and Ian O’Hara (challenger, Ward 4), sat down for the debate co-hosted by the Gabber and the Gulfport Merchants Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, February 11 in the Catherine Hickman Theater.
Organizers allowed for a small, in-person attendance, while also livestreaming the event for the public. The debate format included opening and closing statements from each candidate, as well as several rounds of questions, both from the hosts and from residents, either in-person, or via Zoom.
The contenders also participated in a mock council discussion over a hypothetical scenario involving a grant for the city.
The night’s topics varied widely, from questions about franchise businesses and online bill payment, to the city budget and Florida Sunshine Law.
Code enforcement issues were a hot topic, with some candidates advocating for a larger code enforcement team. (The city currently has only one full-time code enforcement officer.)
“I think if there’s an issue we need to divvy up some money and hire folks. Apply code,” Fried said.
Renewable energy and sustainability popped up in several questions, though some candidates were more enthusiastic than others.
“Many, many of our buildings are 40, 50 years old, so that’s the problem; you’re not gonna put a solar system on those buildings,” Fridovich said.
Fried, who has made solar energy a major part of his campaign, disagreed and suggested that solar panels can be placed on older buildings.
“My house was built in 1960…and I am putting solar on my building. I don’t think age has anything to do with it,” he said. “That’s a BS argument.”
“Richard doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Fridovich countered in a rebuttal allowed by moderators due to Fried’s accusation that Fridovich’s previous statement was “BS.” “You may put it on a house, but you’re not going to – we need new buildings. The reality is we need a new police station, and probably a new city hall. You’re not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars putting it on a building that eventually is going to have to be torn down.”
Fried and Fridovich agreed on at least one issue, however – that Sunshine Law hampers city leaders’ ability to conduct city business.
(Editor’s note: Gulfport Council has no control over the state Sunshine Law; this question was deemed relevant as it shows how each candidate views their ethical roles as councilmembers as they conduct city business.)
“Leadership should be able to discuss some stuff amongst themselves…. We need to work toward that,” Fried said.
“I think Sunshine limits city council,” O’Hara said. “If the legislature doesn’t have Sunshine, then we shouldn’t have Sunshine.”
“Sunshine is like lying in bed with your significant other and not being able to talk about the kids,” Fridovich said.
“I’m very much in favor of open government,” Bauer said, “but the Florida Sunshine Law has gone way too far. It would be much better if we were able to discuss things, talk about what we want to do, without always having to do it in front of the public.”
Brown alone offered support for Sunshine Laws on a local level.
“I guess I’m the only one up here who thinks Sunshine is effective,” Brown said, noting that council members can discuss ideas in open public meetings. “For five of us? I don’t think backroom deals are a good idea, and that is the danger of not having Sunshine. I believe that it works well the way it is. I’m not in favor of getting rid of Sunshine Law at the local level since there’s only five of us.”
In a change-up from debates of the past, candidates participated in a mock council discussion, designed as much for their thoughts on the topic, as for the audience to see how candidates might conduct themselves in open discussion.
The hypothetical scenario asked if the federal government gave Gulfport a three-million-dollar COVID relief grant, to be used however council saw fit, how would the money be used?
Brown appeared to lead the eight-minute discussion, and while candidates did not come up with a concrete plan, most agreed they would distribute money to residents.
An audience question about the rise in the cost of living and low-income housing delivered various responses.
Brown voiced concerns about space for new buildings for low-income housing. O’Hara noted new housing might bring too many people and cause more traffic issues, but did not oppose low-income housing in the future.
Bauer supported low-income housing in Gulfport, saying, “I think we have a real issue here, with respect to our service workers not being able to afford to live here.”
One question from a viewer sparked unanimous agreement. No candidate is in favor of defunding the local police.
“No defunding. If we defund, then we’re defaulting on what we owe our community,” O’Hara said.