The turnout for Wednesday’s Candidates’ Forum for the six candidates running in New Port Richey’s City Council election suggested a healthy number of voters for election day on April 12.
In a time when council chambers are routinely sparse, many seats were filled as Travis Morehead, a founder of the Green Commerce Association (GCA), posed questions submitted ahead of time by residents and organizers to the six candidates.
In six of the seats on the dias were incumbent Councilmen Chopper Davis and Jeff Starkey, seeking re-election to their second term three years after being elected in a similar six-candidate race. Also present were Ahmad Fagouseh, Larry Andersen, K. Vance Ray, and Rob Oman. All six of the candidates running were present at the forum. Organizers were careful to stress that the event was not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn about the candidates and hear responses to some important issues brought by the GCA.
You can read more specific biographical information about each of the candidates in an article we ran a few weeks ago.
Ahmad Fagouseh said he works in jewelry and has business locations in Palm Harbor and New York with international clients but has lived in New Port Richey his entire life and attended Gulf High School. He said he was running to make a difference in the city.
Rob Oman said he has lived in New Port Richey for five years and in Florida since 1990. He said that he has worked in real estate and for the last five years has been managing a pest control company servicing Central Florida.
Chopper Davis (Incumbent) said he moved to New Port Richey in 1983 to start a business and sold it after nine years. He said he was previously on the fireman’s pension board and has “been involved with economic development trying to redevelop downtown.”
Jeff Starkey (Incumbent) said he is a third generation insurance agent in New Port Richey.
Larry Andersen said he retired from AT&T and moved from Cook County near Chicago in 2002.
K. Vance Ray said he came to Florida in 2009 and owned his own business previously in Illinois. He said he thought he “can add something to the spirit of this city here.”
Each candidate was asked a total of three questions. One that was the same, and one that was either directed at incumbent councilmen Davis and Starkey, or one of the four challengers.
You can read a summary of each candidate’s response by clicking on each of the questions below:
- (All Candidates) Should the New Port Richey Aquatics and Recreation Center be open free of charge for youths years 18 and younger during the summer, and what is your plan for the facility?
- (Challengers) What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the city in the next two years and what is the greatest success over the last two years?
- (Incumbents) What is your greatest achievement as a council member and what is the greatest challenge you’ve faced during your time on Council?
- (All Candidates) What is the City’s best environmental initiative in the last three years, and what environmental initiative would you plan to put in place in your first year in office?
- (All Candidates) Closing Statements
Question 1 – (All Candidates) – “New Port Richey Recreation and Aquatic Center”
The first question was posed to all of the candidates and asked about their overall thoughts on the New Port Richey Aquatics and Recreation Center, and whether they thought the facility should be made available for free to youths aged under 18 during the summer months.
Jeff Starkey disagreed with the proposal, citing the need for additional staff. He said that, in general, there is room for improvement at the facility and that he is waiting on a study being produced now to provide him with information on how to move forward with a new business plan to “make it more sustainable in the long term.”
K. Vance Ray said that he would support the measure but would want to get creative with ways to fund it, including using trained volunteers. He said he wanted to focus on moving the burden for the costs of the facility off of membership fees and citizen real estate taxes and on to other tax funding measures.
Rob Oman supported the measure and wanted to institute an academic reward program that would allow schools to use the summer admission as an incentive, and said he wanted to find ways to make the facility more accessible for low income families.
Ahmad Fagouseh said he is concerned by the fact that the facility has never been “in the green.” He said that he did not support the measure, and wanted to charge some amount of money, even if a very small fee to bring in more monthly revenue and increase the competitiveness of the subscription fee, bringing it as low as $10 or $20 a month.
Chopper Davis said that the problem with allowing children in now is that the summer programs that other families are paying for are already maxed out “and those kids are paying. I just don’t think there’s room at this point.” He said he thought the facility is the finest in the State of Florida “for the size of our town.” He said he wanted to look into a better marketing campaign after the ideas raised by a 2012 study were not acted upon.
Larry Andersen said that he has been a member at the facility for years and uses it 3-4 times a week. He said he was concerned about the capacity and the number of staff members as well as and said “I think that would be a very difficult thing to do.” He said that he knew “how to get it done.”
Question 2 (Challengers) – “Challenges”
The second question was posed to the four “challengers” in the race. “What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the city in the next two years and what is the greatest success over the last two years?”
Ahmad Fagouseh said the City’s biggest challenge is that the median income is $19,500, which drew a gasp from the crowd. “We need to bring that up… by bringing in businesses such as a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. That would be great revenue.” He said that economic disparity in New Port Richey is huge. “We’ve got $100,000 homes down to $20,000 homes. We have people that bought these houses that don’t live here and rent it out to people with very low incomes.” He said he wanted to see the City double down on economic development because of how quickly development is occurring in East Pasco. “The median income in Trinity is $80,000,” he said, “We live on the river. We’re living on a gold mine.” He said the City’s greatest accomplishment is the new park and “seeing people coming in downtown is really great. We need to focus on a plan for down the road when the benefit of Sims Park levels off.”
Larry Andersen said he thought fiscal responsibility was key “so that we can become solvent.” He mentioned a tax zone to fill vacant downtown buildings and help “see something besides a bar or a restaurant downtown. I see new restaurants opening up downtown so I applaud them for what they’ve done so far.” He said he wasn’t sure that he would call the recent movement on the Main Street Landings project a success.
K. Vance Ray said the City’s biggest achievement is the City’s Police Department, Fire Department, Public Works Department, and Parks and Recreation Department. “I just can’t se enough about these people,” he said, “and the city council.” He said he wants to help propel the city to bigger and better things. He said the biggest challenge is to bring more revenue into the city. “Talented people in the city leave because they can get a little bit more money in Tampa or Orlando.” He mentioned a worker that he had recently met with the city, “he’s been here 20 years and he’s making less than $20 an hour.”
Rob Oman said that becoming financially responsible and investing in streets, instructure, and schools is the biggest challenge. “The only way we’re going to keep these things is new home ownership. The first thing they look at in a community are the schools.” He said that the new park is the greatest accomplishment and downtown revitalization has picked up. “We need to focus on our roads and our schools,” he said.
Question 3 (Incumbents) – “Challenges and Achievements”
The third question was posed only to the two incumbents in the race. “What is your greatest achievement as a council member and what is the greatest challenge you’ve faced during your time on Council?”
Jeff Starkey said that he thought the greatest achievements were not his personally, but those of the council “as a unified group of leaders. If you look at a city like Port Richey it’s like a shouting match at most meetings.” He said his greatest acheivement was the hiring of City Manager Debbie Manns. “I can’t express to the residents of the city how blessed and fortunate we are to have her… it’s one of the best decisions that all of us have made over the past three years.” He said that his greatest challenge is that he “can’t make everybody happy. One thing I’ve learned about this job is that you’re never going to make everybody happy. No matter what you do you’re going to have someone come in and tell you it’s a dumb idea.”
Chopper Davis said that he wanted to give Jeff Starkey a “lot of credit with the Police Department working with drugs and prostitution. He took that role right in the beginning and I let him run with it. So what I took was economic development,” he said. He seconded Jeff Starkey’s comment about Debbie Manns. “We hired Mario Iezzoni… and we have 50% unoccupied businesses and now we’re at about 80% occupied.” He said that the Main Street Landing project is in a contract now and “you’ll see that completed probably in the next three years.”
Question 4 (All Candidates) – “Environment”
The last question was posed to all candidates. “What is the City’s best environmental initiative in the last three years, and what environmental initiative would you plan to put in place in your first year in office?”
Larry Andersen said that he has seen the city mulching yard waste, and he thought that was “very good turnaround instead of dumping it.” He also cited the city’s clean up days which are held twice a year. “It’s pulling all these TVs and electronics off the street and into dumpsters,” he said, “that’s a wonderful thing.” He said he hasn’t noticed the city doing anything poorly in its green efforts, but said he wanted to see improvements in sidewalks. “Our sidewalks in a lot of our neighborhoods are right on the street and I would like to see that addressed.” He also called for a recycling program. (Editor’s Note: New Port Richey does currently offer recycling through its waste hauler, though many do not participate)
Chopper Davis said that the city has performed environmental testing on Orange Lake. “Being the center and emphasis of our park,” he said, made that important. He said that he would like to see Grey Preserve and Frances Avenue Park utilized more. He said that he also wants to “address a little bit of the runoff into the river… we still have a runoff problem [and we] need to work with the homeowners along the river to keep that clean.”
Ahmad Fagouseh said that he has noted the city’s cleanup days and volunteer cleanups and appreciates them. He noted that Peace Garden was moved from Sims Park and wanted to see that addressed. “I saw the community garden on Grand Boulevard. It’s looking pretty nice there,” he said. He said that the river needs to be cleaned up and that he wants to see the Police Department enforcing speed limits and no wake limits on the river. “People are flying up and down the river… we have dolphins going through there. We need people out on the river giving out tickets.”
Rob Oman said that he would cite the emergence of community gardens. “I think we need to expand on that more. Any vacant lot that the city owns needs to be made available,” he said. He said that one of the things that happens with homeowners of trouble properties is that they stop paying for trash pickup, and he wanted to address that. “I want to focus more on our trails. We’ve got a little bit of one. I want to extend that from the Rec Center down to Frances Avenue Park and we’d have a big, nice, 3.5 mile loop. We could attach that to another 2.5 miles of trail that we have now.”
K. Vance Ray said that he wants to see charging stations for electric vehicles downtown. “You go online and ask where these charging stations are and the only stations we have are the BMW dealer and the Rodeway inn. I’m not much of an ecology guy, but we can get people to come to our city, spend their money, and leave.”
Jeff Starkey said that he can’t think of any city initiatives that supported the green movement. “We have the Grand Gardens on Grand but that wasn’t a city initiative,” he said. “I attended a movie here at our library called ‘Growing Cities,’ I believe, and that movie was inspiring, actually. It talked about small neighborhoods and small cities that are basically self-sustaining. We’re trying to attract nice families to live in downtown New Port Richey… and change the demographics like Ahmad said. When we look at the schools, people don’t want to move here because of them.” He went on to praise the efforts of Gulf Middle School’s Principal Jason Joens, saying he has done “amazing things.” He said he wants to work with troubled youths to get them engaged in urban gardening and “open their eyes.”
Candidates’ Closing Statements
Jeff Starkey said that when he first was old enough to vote he asked his dad “how do you know who to vote for?” He said he told him that he looks at his life and how things are going versus four years ago. “If you’re a New Port Richey resident and you look at your life in New Port Richey now compared to three years ago, it’s improved. I don’t know how you wouldn’t see it that way. My top priorities were public safety, community redevelopment and instilling a sense of pride in our community. Those weren’t just bullet points. I’ve worked very, very hard with our department heads. I think if you go downtown on any given weekend I think you’ll find that sense of pride,” he said.
K. Vance Ray said that he wants to be the “interface between this chair and the people. I want to be the way that politics were supposed to be in this country. I don’t get up here and vote my conscience. I let the people tell me. I want to get them involved in this beautiful town we have. I want to be the people’s candidate. I ask you kindly for your vote,” he said. He also pledged to create a “website where you can see how I voted, whether I voted the way you told me to.” He asked residents to visit his campaign website at http://kvr4councilman.org.
Rob Oman said that he purchased a home for his wife in New Port Richey and that he thinks the City can “find a better way to solve things in the City without coming up with ordinance after ordinance,” he said. He also said he wanted to see better storm drains to prevent further damage to roads.
Ahmad Fagouseh said that he wants to “vigorously fund the police department, add a tax exemption for businesses for two years,” he said, and reduced red tape and the need for variances. He said he wants to focus on growth with new home develop programs offering double what is currently available as a rebate. He asked that residents visit his website at http://ahmad4npr.com.
Chopper Davis said that he worked on economic development and “I think you can see the results of a lot of it with my work on council. I think we’ve had 30 businesses come to downtown… I’m going to continue that and I’ve gotten involved in looking into fiscal responsibility and where we’re spending our money.”
Larry Andersen said that he has taken some IT skills from his previous career with AT&T and he believes in a “zero base budget process. I believe [that the] infrastructure in the immediate downtown area and out needs looking into very seriously. I believe that this is a great town to live in and I think that we can attract people with just a few perks to encouraging new ownership here.”