It was a candidates’ night like no other, with mayoral and commission hopefuls weighing in via Zoom from the comfort of their homes as they answered questions about their plans for the city’s future.
Thanks to COVID-19, voters with an interest in how candidates for Wilton Manors mayor and city commission had to log into a Zoom meeting earlier this month to find out how the competitors measured up. As many as 145 people in addition to the nine candidates joined the event, which took the place of traditional door-knocking and face-to-face fundraisers. Organizers said the participation level was almost the same as in person.
“A lot of residents have expressed deep appreciation for doing the Zoom meeting. A lot of the people know nothing or very little about the candidates running,” said Jon O’Connor, vice president of the Westside Association of Wilton Manors. “We always do it for every election and we normally do it so residents can make an informed decision on candidates because they may not meet them.”
Meeting candidates in the best of times is often hard for the general public. The pandemic has made it even trickier.
Three candidates are running for mayor: Julie Carson, an incumbent city commissioner; Scott Newton, a former longtime mayor and city commissioner who lost his bid for re-election in 2018; and political newcomer Josie Smith-Malave, a chef and owner of Bubbles & Pearls restaurant in Wilton Manors.
In addition, six people are vying for two open commission seats: Chris Caputo, board chair for the Pride Center at Equality Park; Mike Bracchi, who manages a pharmacy consulting business; Doug Blevins, vice-chair of the Wilton Manors Improvement District; Joseph Sansone, a licensed realtor; Jason Basilico, owner of Matty’s at Wilton Park; and Juan Melecio, who has managed a barbershop and has acted in porn films.
The candidates all logged into Zoom and answered questions from three neighborhood association leaders during the event.
Former Wilton Manors Mayor John Fiore, president of the East Neighborhood Association, explained that Zoom was the only way they could give residents a chance to “meet the candidates.”
“All in all it worked out well. There were some technical glitches,” Fiore said, noting that the sound cut out a few times when Sansone and Melecio tried to speak. Those listening in couldn’t ask questions; one of the downsides, Fiore said.
“We had to do it ourselves, which made it different. The people I talked to thought it went well,” Fiore said.
Candidates answered questions on everything from development and density to taxes, vacation rentals and whether or not a hotel should be built in downtown Wilton Manors.
Here are a few highlights:
Newton, who is straight, said he would bring balance and experience to the city. Everyone on the current Wilton Manors Commission is gay. He portrayed himself as a defender of the city’s neighborhoods in the face of development and voiced disapproval for vacation rentals, which are sometimes disruptive and noisy.
“We need to hammer on those people who just don’t care about our communities,” Newson said.
When it comes to development, Carson said elected officials must be mindful not to “deteriorate” the quality of life in the city. She said she invites conversation and open dialogue to find out what residents want. Asked if she would approve an eight-story building, she said it would depend on where it would be located.
Smith-Malave hyped her experience as a Wilton Manors business owner, saying she has her “finger on the pulse” of what is going on in the business community. She said neighborhoods needed to be unified and called for controlled development, adding that she would bring the city a “fresh perspective on old projects” that have stopped moving forward. But when Fiore asked her to describe the city’s borders, she gave a long, rambling description that included portions of Fort Lauderdale.
Bracchi, who is chair of the city’s Budget Committee, highlighted his familiarity with the city’s finances, noting that the COVID-19 recovery will pose a challenge. Bracchi said he didn’t support free parking along Wilton Drive, noting that business employees will park there and take up spots for customers. Buffering and thoughtful development will help maintain Wilton Manors' small-town charm.
Caputo said he would step down from his position as chair of the Pride Center at Equality Park if elected and emphasized the many steps the Pride Center has done to be a better neighbor in the light of past complaints. He called for the “right development in the right places” to maintain the city’s small-town appeal and still move forward. He voiced support for short term leases to help address the vacancies downtown.
Basilico said the city needs to put more emphasis on environmental policies, and find out more about what is going on with King Tides. He supports a “common sense approach” to development that includes listening to residents’ concerns.
Melecio said he is running for office because he thinks the city has been mismanaged and makes it too difficult for business owners to open their businesses. He supported more business development along the Dixie Highway and Oakland Park corridors as a way for the city to increase its daytime tourism appeal. He said the city needs more density and growth.
Blevins expressed support for a downtown hotel as well as vacation rentals, but said they must be properly regulated. He said a city study said a hotel would be viable in Wilton Manors in five years. The city must incentivize smart growth and focus on the type of development it approves in the future.
Sansone said the city must loosen its parking restrictions in order to grow and voiced support for extending free daytime parking. He agreed the city needs a clear plan in regard to development to maintain its small-town feel and still grow. He said the city needs more daytime businesses.
He acknowledged the residency issues that have plagued his candidacy and said he would step down if they create a problem. Sansone owns a house in Wilton Manors but doesn’t live in it because it’s under construction.
“I think it was great everybody had the opportunity to hear from the candidates,” said Sal Torre, president of the West Neighborhood Association. Torre is also a Wilton Manors Gazette columnist.
Ray Carrier, president of the Central Neighborhood Association, was pleased with the participation.
“It was very positive to have the three neighborhood associations work so closely together on a project,” Carrier said. “To do anything different or not to do this would have been wrong — this is one of the services that residents expect.”