JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Four candidates for Jacksonville mayor exchanged jabs while discussing crime, the future of downtown, the city's utility and transparency in a televised debate Wednesday evening ahead of the March 19 city election.
Incumbent Mayor Lenny Curry, City Councilwoman Anna Brosche, former Atlantic Beach City Councilman Jimmy Hill and Omega Allen took the stage at Jacksonville University’s Terry Concert Hall for the debate, hosted by News4Jax and JU's Public Policy Institute.
It was the only debate in which the three Republican candidates and Allen, who has no party affiliation, all appeared together.
Curry and Brosche, his competitor who’s polling the closest, went back and forth throughout the debate. Brosche hit Curry as a mayor who bullies people to get his agenda passed. Curry portrayed himself as a big thinker who gets things done.
The topic of crime started off the debate, as it was found to be the most important issue in a recent University of North Florida poll of registered voters.
When News4Jax anchor Kent Justice, who moderated the debate, asked the candidates how they would reduce violent crime, Brosche had the chance to respond first and called out the mayor.
"Four years ago, he made promises to invest in prevention and intervention and we have not seen that. What we've seen is a move to action during election time. We need more than election year law enforcement. We need investments in our children. We need investments in our neighborhoods," Brosche said. "We need to act fast with a sense of urgency -- the kind of urgency we’re experiencing during election season."
Curry responded, saying the former sheriff told him when he first ran for the mayor's office four years ago that the force had been "cut to the bone." Curry said he has worked to restore those cuts, thanks to the support he has from the current sheriff and state attorney.
"I've added 180 officers. I reorganized on the prevention-intervention piece on how we serve kids. I created the Kids Hope Alliance, which creates educational opportunities for young people," Curry said. "We’ve got a long way to go. There’s no celebrating. But to be clear, our investments and work with law enforcement, sheriff, the state attorney are beginning to work. I am fighting for the safety of the people of Jacksonville every day."
Hill said if he is elected mayor, he would offer "the most experience in public safety at the street level."
"We cannot analyze or police the crime wave. We need to engage the community and find people who will do work on the ground," he said. "The government isn't going to fix this. The people have to."
Allen said respect between the people and the law enforcement serving them will help to improve the safety of the community.
"I am interested in what I believe is community policing, when officers are assigned to a particular area and they get to know and build relationships with the people they have sworn to protect," Allen said. "When these relationships are built, then you have respect."
When the candidates were asked whether they would increase the funding for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office as mayor, Curry said he would continue to do so if re-elected, touting the investments such as ShotSpotter that he has made since he has been in office.
Hill also said he would increase funding for law enforcement, but added he'd look at the parole system.
Allen said she does not believe more money or police officers are what's necessary, but that better quality of police is what's needed to do the job.
Brosche said the sheriff shared that he didn't need any more resources and the budget has given him what he needed to fight crime. She went on to talk about where money has gone during Curry's tenure, including investing in a dog park, but said not enough has gone into children's programs.
"The funding for children's services has not increased in 10 years," she said.
In Curry's rebuttal, he claimed that Brosche has voted with 98 percent of his priorities, including public safety.
"This is just politics the councilwoman has played for the last few months to a year since she wanted to run for this office," he said. "People see this for what this is. It's just dirty politics."
"I voted for his budgets because I was rooting for him. I wanted our city to succeed," Brosche added in response.
The future of downtown, specifically the Jacksonville Landing and the announcement late last month of a settlement that includes legislation that would provide $1.5 million for the demolition of the downtown riverfront mall, was another focus of the debate. The candidates were asked what would be the city's iconic beauty spot if the iconic Landing was gone.
"The idea is to have some sort of green space and some sort of development discussed in the community. There's a much bigger idea here. I have been and will continue to be about big, bold, decisive leadership," Curry said. "I'm proud that we're going to make the Jacksonville Landing the jewel that it should be."
But the other three candidates voiced opposition to the idea of turning the Landing into a green space. Brosche said it would be "foolish" to tear down the Landing before knowing what will come next.
"I do not favor the Landing settlement," she said. "The Landing is the home plate of our downtown."
Hill said he would stop the Landing from becoming a green space and instead called for a flex-space with more parking.
"If you don't have more parking, it will fail no matter what you put there," Hill said.
Allen voiced her support for revitalizing the Landing by adding housing, retail and entertainment.
"Downtown is the heart of any city and our heart needs a transplant," she said "I believe the Landing can still be the iconic place it was in the beginning."
The mayoral candidates were also asked whether they favor a sale of JEA.
The board began a process of exploring the potential of selling JEA more than a year ago, which was controversial. At one point when she was president of the Jacksonville City Council, Brosche refused to let Curry speak on the issue at a council meeting. Last November, voters passed a straw ballot saying they want the people of Jacksonville to have a final say in any potential sale of the utility.
Curry said he will not be introducing legislation to sell JEA.
Hill said he would not sell JEA, as it provides jobs and the autonomy to repair infrastructure in a matter of days if there's a storm.
Allen said she would not sell JEA under the current circumstances.
Brosche answered last. She pointed out that Curry "failed to answer the question," and said she does not favor a sale of JEA.
Another issue that was brought up was a Sunshine Law violation investigation by the state attorney's office into Brosche. No charges were ever filed in it. Brosche said it was politically done by Curry’s friends to keep her from running.
"This is a mayor and administration that leads with a culture of fear, bullying and intimidation. And that’s just one of the steps that they’ve taken there are many more," she said.
"That was a state attorney investigation. That was a criminal investigation. So I don’t really have a response to that," Curry said.
Hill said Curry is not leading a transparent mayoralty.
"Things that are being done are in the vacuum of a closed-door, backroom government and it cannot stay that way. We need to send these ideas out to the public," he said. "My integrity is impeccable."
Allen thinks she has something to offer non-Republican voters as a No Party Affiliated candidate.
"I have seen a lot of Democrats for Republicans and I think they have been misguided thinking they didn’t have a choice. I am trying to show them at every opportunity that you have a choice," she said. "Parties divide us."
A recent UNF poll had Curry with 52 percent of the vote, but if he doesn't get one more than 50 percent of the total votes cast to win outright, the top two mayoral candidates will advance to the May 14 general election.