On Tuesday evening, a socially distanced crowd found their seats inside the auditorium at City Hall. Twelve candidates took the stage to answer questions from Michelle Anchors, who was the evening’s moderator.
The entire 2.5 hour live stream can be viewed here thanks to the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce and Emerald Coast TV.
On Wednesday, the Northwest Florida Daily News published a recap of some of the talking points that happened throughout the forum. One of the quotes in that article references Gareth Stearns.
The article quotes Stearns as saying, “The city does not do a good job of quality of life benefits.”
Stearns, however, did not exactly say that.
Before we get to what Mr. Stearns said, we have to go back to earlier in the evening when Ms. Anchors asked the following question:
“According to the Quality of Life Survey, young people are twice as likely to view our economic conditions here in Fort Walton Beach as negative. What are your specific proposals to improve those conditions, especially for young people and minorities?”
That question was posed to:
- Payne Walker
- Debi Riley
- David Schmidt
- Brad Roehrig
According to the results of the survey, 60% of respondents said that the city does not attract young people.
Ms. Anchors then moved on to other questions which led to the topic of annexation. She asked the candidates whether or not they supported the annexation of certain neighborhoods into the city of Fort Walton Beach, specifically areas of Sylvania Heights.
Mr. Stearns stated that he was a supporter of annexation, which also began his point about messaging.
“I’m a big proponent of annexation,” said Stearns. “I’m a big proponent of doing whatever we can to better the message by the city to articulate the benefits of joining the city.”
Ms. Anchors then transitioned to the topic of ‘parks and rec’ services that included programs such as adding walking trails, pickle-ball courts and other amenities. She asked candidates whether they supported the city offering these services at the same level, higher level or lower level.
Here is the full quote from Mr. Stearns:
“I believe that the Parks and Rec Department is perhaps one of the most important departments in all of the City of Fort Walton Beach, because it’s probably the department that most families can come to grips with or relate to the easiest. Who doesn’t enjoy taking their kids out on a sunny day to go on the swings or on the slide? It’s really easy to enjoy a day like that. It’s also really easy to have your day ruined as well.”
“And yes, we have 23 green spaces within the city. I concur that it’s unfortunate that the Lake Drive neighborhood was affected so recently in a town that is so hemmed-in like Mr. Smith was talking about earlier. On the North by the military, on the South by the Gulf of Mexico, and then sprinkled throughout by unincorporated municipalities. When you look at our green spaces on a map, I am damn proud that we have 23 green spaces, and I do not want to lose a single one of them for six houses that are going to be built, that I’m never going to get to live in, that I’m never going to get to see the benefit of.”
“But you know what? I would see the benefit of an improved green space at that Lake Drive facility and I think that the ball was dropped there. Imagine what we could have done with a little bit of beautification and effort and some elbow grease. We would have made a lot more people happy than the situation that we’re currently in right now.”
“And I think that in the macro is the biggest problem that we’re facing as a city is the messaging. The city does not do a good job of explaining the benefits to living within the city or explaining the benefits of what it is that the city is doing. I believe in the fire assessment fee could have been rolled out a lot better with proper messaging. And maybe it wouldn’t have, if the messaging had been a little better.”
“I think that’s the message that I’m trying to convey here in the grand scheme of things. If the city of Fort Walton beach could improve upon its messaging, perhaps the Quality of Life survey results for those youth that were referenced earlier, it might be a little bit higher. But how could they be higher when all of the adults in the room seem to want to complain about everything all the time?”
“What sort of example is that for our young people? I love this town. I was going to run for this position years ago. Well before the fire assessment fee. Well before I even moved back to this town. I love this town. That means something. I want to see this town grow and improve and beautify. We’re living in a great economy right now. I want my town to look like it.”
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In a statement on Thursday morning regarding the article, Stearns said, “I am very disappointed in the way that I was carelessly reduced to a single misquote. Friends, I assure you that my love for my hometown, and my vision of positive growth for its future were on full display throughout the evening. The single thirteen word quote attributed to me in the article is a complete fabrication.”