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Twelve Candidates Are Running For Three Open Seats On FWB Council

City of Fort Walton Beach

There are three open seats on the Fort Walton Beach City Council, and twelve candidates vying for votes in the March 9 municipal election.

Tuesday evening, they all got a chance to speak at a moderated forum hosted by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Current council members Nic Allegretto and David Schmidt are running for re-election alongside 10 new faces: Gloria DeBerry, Jason Floyd, Sean Murphy, Debra Riley, Brad Roehrig, Michael Rojas, Travis Smith, Gareth Stearns, Sonya Vazquez, and Payne Walker.

“I see something broken and I want to fix it,” said auto dealer Travis Smith. “I want to be a voice for the people, which I think is lacking (in the city).”

A couple of those candidates, including Smith, stem from the FWB Watch Group, which filed a lawsuit against the City after council passed an $80 annual fire fee that the group deemed unlawful. It was the first issue addressed in the forum. Local attorney Michelle Anchors, who moderated the evening called the fire fee the “biggest, fattest elephant in the room.”

“We got bamboozled, we were hoodwinked on that,” said Gloria DeBerry.

Councilmember and school principal David Schmidt, who is running for re-election, was one of the opposing votes against the fee, alongside Nic Allegretto. His reasoning was because the ordinance had the potential to include churches and schools. Alternative funding sources could be general funding or utility funding, he said.

“We need to see proposals. We need to see how different programs are running,” he said. “There’re different ways the budget is funded. We need to look at different proposals, compare costs, find different ways that things can be consolidated.”

Brad Roehrig, who ran last year for Okaloosa County District 3 Commissioner, agreed that an alternative funding source would be general fund or a millage.

“Something would have to be cut or you’d have to have a milage,” he said.

Another public safety issue brought up was the topic of police reform. After last year’s reckoning across the country following the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter rallies were hosted in Fort Walton Beach. Candidate Sonya Vazquez started the Facebook group Speak Justice last summer and has helped organize rallies.

When it comes to Fort Walton Beach Police Department, Vazquez said she believed the department was “outstanding.”

“I think we have the best police department, compared to my hometown in Clinton, North Carolina,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to defund them, but I think funding them for extra training could probably help.”

Annexation was another issue brought to the candidates, specifically the possible annexation of the Sylvania Heights neighborhood.

Gareth Stearns, the man behind the popular Facebook page “Fort Walton Beach: What We Did,” said annexation is “absolutely necessary.”

“If you look at (city) borders, it’s quite confusing,” he said. “It’s an impediment to a lot of things like growth and beautification. It would benefit us all.”

Sylvania Heights is a low-income neighborhood that has struggled to have a voice in Okaloosa County. Candidate Debra Riley grew up in the area and said she favored annexation “one-hundred percent.”

“The county does not take care of the greater Sylvania heights community the way the city of Fort Walton Beach would,” said Riley. “You must annex into the city to get a better quality of life.”

But candidate Payne Walker said he’s “not a fan.”

“If I was one of those neighboring communities wanting to consider annexing, I would be asking what am I going to get for the add money and why can’t I get it in the county,” he said.

One of the issues that received unified support from the candidates is the $30 million realignment of Highway 98 in downtown Fort Walton Beach and the overall plan to revitalize the downtown area.

“It’s going to create a true destination for the City of Fort Walton Beach and I look forward to getting involved,” said architect Jason Floyd.

Pulling from a recent survey of over 600 Fort Walton Beach residents, Anchors said young people in the city were twice as likely to view the economic conditions in Fort Walton Beach as negative. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the average income for Fort Walton Beach is $31,359 and the city has a 13.6% poverty rate. The U.S. is at 10.5%.

Debra Riley says young people need to be heard.

“We need to work with young people, they need support and mentorship,” she said. “We need to offer them a place to go, a place to learn and show them how they can make a difference.”

As a parent of adult children, Roehrig said the issue hits close to home.

“We want to keep them here,” he said of the area’s youth. “We want to support them. We can make great strides…we need their input.”

Most of the candidates on the stage were born in the Fort Walton Beach area or longtime residents. One thing they all have in common is a passion for the City. 

“I love this town — that means something,” said Stearns. “I want to see this town grow and improve and beautify. We’re living in a great economy right now and, dammit, I want my town to look like it.”

The Municipal Election is March 9. Fort Walton Beach residents will not only be voting on councilmembers, but city charter amendments. In Laurel Hill, residents will vote for a new mayor and a referendum to dissolve the City of Laurel Hill. And, in Destin, residents will vote on a charter amendment to prohibit transfer of interest in city parks. For more information on voting, visit voteokaloosa.gov.