Windermere Town Council candidates discuss traffic, taxes and why 'quaintness' matters so much
Friday, February 12, 2021
Windermere Town Council 'Candidates' Night' took place on Zoom this year.
Fielding issues ranging from traffic to taxes, little distinguished the four candidates vying for three seats on Windermere’s Town Council during a virtual political forum Wednesday night. They largely agreed with each other about pressing issues facing the town, and all stressed that they wanted to maintain Windermere’s “quaint” character and small town ambiance. The election is March 9.
This year, “Candidates’ Night” was held on Zoom because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Roughly 40 people attended the nearly two-hour meeting that was co-hosted by former Winderemere Mayor Gary Bruhn and West Orange Chamber of Commerce President Stina D’Uva. After a brief introduction, each candidate answered the same eight questions. Other participants on the Zoom call were then invited to ask questions.
Council Member Bill Martini, who’s seeking a second two-year term on the board, has been a 25-year resident with a long history of volunteering for the town. He said he’s seeking re-election to see several major initiatives get completed. A resident for about four years, Michael Hargreaves worked as a former law enforcement officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for five years. Now, Hargreaves owns a private security firm, PCI Security, that he started in 1998, according to his company’s website.
Retired Air Force Colonel Anthony “Tony” Davit (read his VoxPopuli Q&A) is a 26-year-veteran and civil engineer. New to Windermere and first-time candidate, Davit said his expertise in construction and project management would be an asset to the town. An 11-year resident, Mandy David (read her VoxPopuli Q&A) owns a firm that provides clients with American Sign Language interpreters. She has little government experience, but mentioned that she worked for the U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla, when he was speaker of the Florida State House of Representatives.
Although the Zoom forum was largely uncontroversial, toward the end, Hargreaves was asked about his political views; whether he saw corruption in the Windermere town government and if he considered Joe Biden the legitimate president of the United States.
Roads, traffic and cellphone signals
No surprise that traffic — a longstanding worry for residents and the town — dominated the conversation early on and the candidates shared the concern. Hargreaves said roads and traffic were a “pet peeve,” pointing out that cut-through traffic endangered resident safety and threatened the town’s character, a sentiment echoed by the other candidates.
“We’re bumper-to-bumper traffic,” said Hargreaves. “If there’s an emergency or someone’s dying, you’d never get a fire truck or an ambulance to your house. That’s a major issue.” He blamed Orange County for allowing traffic to enter the community and said that has to end.
Martini said Covid-19 is currently the biggest issue facing the town and safety of its residents. One “positive impact” from the pandemic has been the reduced traffic through the town. But he warned traffic will return especially with the sprawling Horizon West community, which comprises about 4 percent of the county’s square mileage, continuing to grow.
“It also comprises 47 percent of the building permits last year,” said Martini. “So there’s a massive amount of growth and building going on over there but very little forethought about how to route all that traffic from east to west … we’re the only corridor to get from east to west.”
Davit said traffic through Windermere isn’t sustainable, saying the level of service at Sixth Avenue is “atrocious.” But he said the town needs to work with the county and state to figure out alternate routing that draws traffic from the central thoroughfares. Davit also said he’s heard rumors of a redevelopment of the downtown business area that, if true, should be done smartly and not take away from the “feel” of the area.
David, a resident of The Manors, acknowledged traffic is an issue but also focused on cellphone signal strength and dropped calls that affect work-from-home businesses like hers and her husband’s.
Taxes v. improvements
When asked about balancing town spending and its tax rate with improvements, the candidates said it had to be done carefully. “It’s pretty difficult,” said Martini. He added people think the town is “loaded with money” but it’s not. There are many competing priorities for a “small” $6 million budget. That’s why Windermere has had to go outside for funding and grants. For example, Martini said the town is seeking $12 million in state appropriations for implementing a multimodal trail pedestrian bridge and a water utility master plan. He added, he'd be “thrilled” to get even one of the projects funded. “We’re constantly spinning plates and juggling to make things happen [and] keep residents happy.”
“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” said Davit, referring to weighing residents’ needs and costs with a project’s benefits. The civil engineer, who touted his expertise in construction and project management, said he’s guided several projects that resulted in a product for less money. David echoed those remarks, saying she would also solicit residents’ views v. a project’s benefits to the town.
Hargreaves said he likes to “think outside the box” and cited his experience helping to reduce crime even in communities without budgets for security. He also recommended that Windermere seek funding for projects through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, a federal program aimed at providing relief to workers, families, small businesses and state, local and tribal governments affected by Covid-19.
Well water and annexations
D’Uva said that currently 70 percent of residents are on well water and asked if the candidates support an initiative to provide them with public water. The candidates largely agreed the issue needed to be studied further, but only Martini said he supported the initiative and the town should move forward with the plan if it’s funded.
Martini said residents on well water should be given the option, “to a certain extent,” to connect to public water, although he added that he’s aware of the cost that public water could potentially burden some property owners.
David and Hargreaves both said the first step is to find out whether the residents want public water or to stay with well water. Hargreaves said he uses well water and hasn’t seen an issue with the water table. David said she grew up on well water and knows the high costs of digging one.
An assessment needs to be done about the need for potable water, said Davit, and then weigh the benefits v. the costs to residents as well as ancillary benefits to firefighters. Any such project could be implemented in phases, which could disperse the investment over a period of time and potentially save money.
On another topic, the candidates were lockstep on annexations, which was described as a “hot button issue.” They said annexing neighborhoods could bring in much-needed tax revenue, but such considerations have to be weighed carefully. “I love the small quaintness of the town,” said David. “I think that you will lose that if you annex too many.” Hargreaves, the former law enforcement officer, cited crime as a potential issue with every annexation.
Martini said annexation is a “two-sided coin” and the town would have to look at the track record, finances and other issues before making a decision. Davit said he agreed and the additional tax base could be offset by unforeseen burdens and that neighborhoods should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. For example, a gated community potentially may provide a great tax base if the homeowner’s association already pays for its security coverage, reducing the burden for police presence.
Dirt roads and community cooperation
Candidates were united on maintaining Windermere’s dirt roads — despite the frequency with which some washed out — rather than paving them over. Martini said he “absolutely” didn’t want to pave anything in town. Dirt roads are the reason for its charm and character, he said, and the town has a maintenance plan for each individual intersection. He said the town is currently working on getting designs for three large projects that would eliminate washouts and control stormwater runoff. It would not only help residents but also preserve the water quality for the Butler Chain of Lakes. Hargreaves added that paving dirt roads would attract speeding motorists.
When it came to a question about working with neighboring communities, the candidates agreed Windermere should work with Ocoee, Oakland and Winter Garden as well as Orange County. Besides mutual aid, the town can learn from other communities that may have faced similar issues, said Martini. He said there’s strength in numbers, too, such as when Windermere, Ocoee, Winter Garden and others stood up to an Orange County proposal for a half-cent sales tax initiative that wouldn’t have benefitted those municipalities.
Hargreaves said he had a problem with the county and its refusal to help the town especially regarding roads and traffic. “I’m kind of controversial. I’m not the nice guy when it comes to protecting our town. And Orange County has treated us like a red-haired stepchild since I”ve been here,” he said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Hargreaves was asked by a participant in the chat whether he believed the town of Windermere was corrupt as he said in the West Orange Times Observer interview. In that Feb. 3 interview, Hargreaves was quoted: “... It’s urgent we all pitch in to put a stop to corruption in our government — both federally and on the local levels.” He said his number one priority was to “investigate what vote-tallying machines we use to cast our votes from local to federal.”
In Wednesday’s Zoom meeting, Hargreaves said Windermere didn’t have corruption issues but said he was pointing more to the national election. He said he had a lot of questions about where Windermere residents’ votes go. “Whether you see or believe what others see and believe in the national election, we come away with one thing: there [were] a lot of irregularities. Where’s [sic] our votes going? Are they being counted?” If elected to the council, he said he wanted to look into that and answer those questions himself.
When asked by Bruhn if there were more questions, Town Manager Robert Smith, who was reading the chat questions, said most of the remaining questions dealt with Hargreaves’ political views. He read a question from VoxPopuli’s Norine Dworkin, who asked why Hargreave considered the new president a “touchy subject” and sought clarification. “I would like Mr. Hargreaves to assure the residents of Windermere that he believes Joe Biden is the legitimate elected president of the United States and that he believes the election was not stolen,” as read by Smith.
Hargreaves responded that he doesn’t “hide the fact that, you know, we’re all either Republicans or Democrats. We all voted for who we voted for. We all believe that who we believe would win and hope would win. Whether I voted for one person or another I don’t think matters. But the fact is that one person won and I’m OK with that.” He added that he wasn’t “OK with what he saw,” possibly citing the vote counting. “All my life I’ve been an investigator. Two plus two equals seventeen. There’s a problem with that math and I’m not going to hide that.” He again talked about the votes and where they went.
Dworkin then spoke up during the Zoom meeting and asked: “The question, Mr. Hargreaves, was: do you believe Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States? That’s the question.” Smith interjected and said he believed Hargreaves answered the question “to the best of his ability.”
Martini then added that the volunteers who operate the voting precinct in Windermere have been there for decades and are of the “highest integrity.” He said the voting machines are provided by Orange County. “I would not question our results based on what I know about those people.”
Note: The story was updated to change the name of the OrangeObserver.com to the West Orange Times Observer.
Election Day is March 9. Polls will be open 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. Early voting is March 1 to 5 at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office 119 West Kaley Street, Orlando, FL 32806 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.
If you voted by mail in the general election, you should receive a ballot for the municipal election. Such requests are meant to be good for two elections. But check your status to be sure. https://ocfelections.com/vote-by-mail
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