BARTOW — Candidates for the Bartow City Commission squared off last week at a virtual forum where they shared their views on voter-presented issues including why they each ought to be elected, public safety, code enforcement, city communications, the pandemic, quality of life and amenities.
The candidates are seeking votes for an at-large seat and the seat for the city’s Central District.
Tossing their hats in the ring for the at-large slot are Sal Carter, incumbent James F. Clements, Tanya Tucker and Charlie Bittinger. The Central District slot is up for grabs between incumbent and present Mayor Scott Sjoblom and opponent Wesley Harbin.
The 90-minute virtual forum, held online, was hosted by the Main Street Baptist Church with long-time city activist Clifford Lewis acting as moderator. It was followed by an in-person meet-and-greet opportunity, held downtown and hosted by Bartow Main Street.
The Greater Bartow Chamber of Commerce also helped stage the two events.
Leading off the recent forum were the candidates for the at-large seat, presently held by Clements.
Each candidate was posed the same questions and given an equal time slot to voice their opinions in the various areas of concern. Bittenger did not attend the virtual event.
Tucker, a county employee, led off the session saying that voters should elect her because she was a livelong county resident, a long-time county employee and had a background handling environmental and housing issues, was well-versed in procurement processes and was a fifth generation Bartowan.
Clements, who has served on the commission since 2006, cited his experience in office, cited his part in lowering city taxes, his work to get a new water treatment plant built and how he has helped lower the city’s electric rates twice.
Carter, an entrepreneur and a lifelong Bartowan, bases his platform on smart growth, maintenance of the quality of life for all residents, said he will press for transparency in government and noted he has experience in business.
On public safety, Clements cited that the city police department had recently obtained national certification for law enforcement best practices, stressed the need for hiring experienced law enforcement officers and said the city has its lowest crime rate in recent history.
Carter said the city's law enforcement officers needed higher pay and incentives to stay with the department and that he would fight for higher wages for both police and firefighters.
Tucker said the city department “does a heck of a job” but also said the force needed 11 more police officers and a dozen more firefighters. She added that the pay scale was an issue and officers needed a better career ladder. She closed saying, “They fight for us, we should fight for them.”
Code enforcement is a question of education, said Carter, and it should not be an outsourced activity. Clements said code enforcement officials should be given the authority to issue citations on the spot “like traffic tickets” and Tucker said “there just isn't enough officers” to uphold the city's codes.
Parks and recreation and the city's cemeteries have been in the news recently, and while none of the three candidates faulted the city workers in those areas, all maintained that not enough emphasis or money was put into its amenities.
“We need to update all our fields and there's no reason that hasn't been done,” Carter said.
“Our parks are deplorable,” echoed Tucker, adding, “we need to do better for our kids and residents.”
Clements said, “We do need to do more and put more money into maintenance,” but he also suggested the possibility of the city building a new park complex in north Bartow that would house a new pool and multiple sports fields.
All three candidates for that slot agreed that the city should pursue establishing equity in the city's hiring practices, so that city staff would reflect the community's demographics.
The trio of candidates also maintained that communications with the electorate and residents should be transparent and that the city's outreach should be broadened.
In the Seat 2 race, Harbin claimed his working-class background offered a new perspective to the city's governors, while Sjoblom cited his experience as a commissioner and mayor.
The pair also echoed the earlier candidates stands on the need for additional funding for public safety and leisure services. Sjoblom added that police and fire department salaries are sub-par and need to be further addressed, despite a recent overhaul to the pay system.
Infrastructure also drew comments from both candidates.
Harbin said “we need to build around our youth, and we need to have more people to take care of the fields and parks.”
Sjoblom said his other infrastructure priorities included pursuing expansion of a fiber optic network, to allow residents access to internet services; replace failing underground pipes, both water and sewer; and continuing the city's ongoing paving project.
The city's 11,500 registered voters will be able to head to the polls on April 6 and may cast their ballots at the Bartow Civic Center. Mail-in voting closed last weekend. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.