The candidates are vying for Seat 1 on the Town Commission in Oakland’s first contested election in 16 years.
VoxPopuli Editor-Chief Norine Dworkin moderates candidates forum while Robin Schoen monitors Zoom for online questions. Video: Carter Bridges/Unpeeled Productions
Oakland’s two candidates for Seat 1 on the Town Commission — the first contested election for the municipality in 16 years — squared off Monday night, trying to distinguish themselves on issues ranging from growth and development to Lake Apopka’s health to Black history.
Incumbent Rick Polland, who has held the seat since 2012, debated challenger Matthew Bunevich at the Empire Finish Systems VoxPopuli Candidates Forum, which was held at the town’s Meeting Hall and livestreamed on Zoom. The forum was moderated by VoxPopuli Editor-in-Chief Norine Dworkin and sponsored by Empire Finish Systems, DG Doughnuts and Eggs Up Grill. Election Day is March 8.
Business growth and development
Dworkin’s first question addressed balancing Oakland’s small town charm with a call to add retail, restaurants and other businesses.
Polland said Oakland doesn’t want the big chain restaurants. Instead, he suggested using Winter Garden’s strategy of establishing restaurants like Chef’s Table or Market to Table.
Bunevich said Oakland is developing at a pace that he has never seen before, and the town and commissioners need to take control of it. While Bunevich credited commissioners for how they’ve handled some recent zoning and planning, he said, “I don’t want to become an exit on the turnpike. I don’t want to be Winter Garden-adjacent, I want to be Oakland.
“I think it's very important for us to understand a business that is an anchor to Oakland could become a wider launching pad for the future for us, not just another set of businesses that open and close every four or five months or every four or five years,” he said. Bunevich added that determining how to attract that kind of business and then how to get more community involvement were two critical elements.
When Dworkin asked Polland if he had anything to add, the incumbent stressed how Oakland is trying to work with Winter Garden on golf-cart regulations so that it’s easier to travel between the neighboring towns. “I would like to see you take a golf cart all the way to Plant Street and all the way to ONP [Oakland Nature Preserve],” he said.
The town’s population increase was another issue. “The University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research found that Oakland grew by nearly 11 percent between 2020 and 2021. Given that there's little appetite for multi-family housing projects, how do you propose accommodating the steady influx of people?” asked Dworkin.
Bunevich said the town should expand its ability to “police” and control the long-term effects of development. “The reality is… we can't wait five years, seven years for something, and then McDonald's [will] buy land through third parties, and then they do what they do and we end up with what we don’t want. So we have to take control now. I think that's the critical part.”
Polland agreed, saying that Oakland needs to take charge of its inevitable growth, such as attracting the right restaurants to Oakland. He’d like people outside of Oakland to consider it a destination in itself. Asked about the kinds of housing he was willing to build given that there was little appetite for multi-family projects, he noted that the town already has a good mix of high- and low-density housing.
“We got an apartment complex already, as you know. We got several neighborhoods that are what we call high density and I think we need a balance,” said Polland. We’re bringing some low density now. We’re bringing in proposed subdivisions that’s going to be low density, so I think we have a good mix right now.”
The environment was another big topic at the forum. “Lake Apopka is one of the area's greatest natural resources and it's at the center of some ambitious eco-tourism plans. Oakland shares caretaking responsibilities with other cites, but as commissioner what policies would you want to see enacted to be a good steward of the lake?” asked Dworkin.
“We can’t control what happens in Lake Apopka. The most pressing issue in Lake Apopka right now is hydrilla,” replied Polland. [Hydrilla is an invasive water weed that can choke off waterways, killing plants and fish. He has long addressed concerns over hydrilla, detailing how 8,000 or up to 14,000 acres of Lake Apopka are affected. While Oakland itself can only support the efforts of other towns, “we want to make sure that all our shoreline, that we do what we can to protect the lake,” he added.
“The majority of [the Briley Farms subdivision] is going to be lakeview homes rather than lakefront, so we’re going to have a nice buffer zone that will filter any water that will come off the houses and into the lake. Then I would like to make sure that if they do have any houses close to it, that they put some swales and berms in there,” added Polland.
Bunevich said he’s supportive of efforts to clean up the lake, but urged people to think about the future. “The part where I struggle is that not many of our homes in Oakland are on the lake. So how do we make sure we’re contributing to the lake as well as utilizing the lake for what we can to help Oakland….I know there's discussion of putting in a dock that can be used, and there’s a dock that can be used, but how do we encourage Oakland residents to get out there? … There seems to be a lot of plans, but they always seem to slow down as they get closer. So I think for us in Oakland, it's keeping that small town feel by how do we get people there [to the lake]?”
On irrigation, which has been a major challenge in the town, the candidates weren’t as clear. “Just to refresh for anyone who was unaware, sewage is treated in Clermont, and Oakland gets none of the reclaimed water back,” said Dworkin. “As a result the town uses 50 percent of its drinking water to irrigate stormwater reclamation projects. We use water harvested from a canal adjacent to the lake and we'll cut back on using drinking water significantly. But as I understand it, it's just the new construction that will have the door piping to access the harvested water. That's three to four communities. That might be correct. So I've got to ask, what's the plan for the rest of Oakland to further reduce reliance on drinking water for irrigation?
Polland said that would be just too expensive to “run new piping to older homes.” When asked if there’s another plan to get water to the rest of Oakland, he said he’d love to see that but they haven’t gotten that far yet.
Bunevich said the issue regarding water is a "two-headed monster." He said he wants to find a way to get the town off drinking water and create a more sustainable plan, although he didn't go into specifics. Should the town figure out a way to subsidize communities with a plan to re-pipe or change the price for the use of water so it'll be cheaper to change? "Those are questions that have to be answered, but I don't think they're going to happen in the next 10 years. I think they're much farther off," he said.
He compared the water and sewage agreement as having a tenant in a building and giving them free space. “We get absolutely nothing besides the cost of the water. So are we charging [developers]? Are we building an infrastructure that we’re not using a ton of labor to make sure this gets done? Are we growing with it?”
Black history and the future
Turning to Black history, Dworkin said an exhibit at the Healthy West Orange Arts & Cultural Center highlighted the 1950s lynching of two Black citrus workers, Melvin Womack and Willie Vincent. “Even though there were newspaper accounts and a very widely read 2002 novel, Lay Your Trumpet in My Hands, that fictionalized Womack's murder, this exhibit is the first time the town has acknowledged the lynchings. In your view, what is an appropriate way to mark, commemorate and teach about this event in Oakland history?”
Polland suggested a permanent plaque. However, Bunevich said most people want to have a conversation. “How do we dedicate a building or something else in our town? How do we represent who we are now?”
When asked what Oakland might look like in 15 years, Polland joked that Oakland will be fully built out by then, to light laughter from the audience. He said even if fully built out, the town would retain its charm.
Bunevich agreed that parts will get built out, but added: “The big thing I hope to achieve is how to foster community, the one thing that I think we have to do better is we have to involve the community in events….We have the ability, we have the space, we have a trail, we have the town hall right here.” He suggested movie nights, food trucks and fun events to foster community and get more people from his generation involved.
After taking audience questions from the in-person and online audiences, the forum’s livestream was overtaken by outsiders who temporarily disrupted the stream with pornographic images and audio before the Zoom was shut down.
“I’m sure that was very shocking for those on the Zoom. It was an unfortunate occurrence," said Dworkin. "We did a post-mortem in the morning, and we now have procedures to ensure future Zoom events are not hijacked.
“The main thing to remember is that for those who attended the candidates forum at the Meeting Hall and on the Zoom, they had an opportunity to hear two very different candidates’ views on issues that are important to Oakland," she continued. "Coming into the forum, few people knew anything about Mr. Bunevich, and judging from the comments I heard afterward, now they know him and his positions better. I even heard some discussion about establishing a social media committee to explore some of Bunevich’s ideas. In addition, Commissioner Polland got a chance to remind Oaklanders of the many things he’s done for the town as he’s served on the commission.
“Oakland has an election coming up, its first in 16 years. If the Candidates Forum gets the conversation going so that people go to vote, then I’d say we’ve done our job.”