Mayoral candidates addressed the voters of Tallahassee Thursday during a luncheon at the Leon County Civic Center, in the second such event in as many months. The nonpartisan forum, hosted by the Capital Tiger Bay Club, lasted less than an hour and featured incumbent John Marks and his primary opponent, small business owner Steve Stewart, who each offered their approach to issues such as utility rates and state budgeting before a brief Q&A session.

Stewart is a nonpartisan candidate whose start in politics began after exposing a 2005 back-door pay raise in the form of deferred compensation for city commissioners, as well as a recent $22,000 pay raise quietly approved by the city. He opened by claiming the current administration has “swept major issues under the rug for eight years,” affecting the quality of life for citizens in the form of high utility rates, wasteful spending and lax oversight.

A citizens’ utility authority was disbanded in 2006, resulting in a 36-percent increase in utility rates before the city commission reorganized the group earlier this year, according to Stewart. “We have to get [utility rates] under control. I’ll push for an independent citizens’ utility panel.”

In addition, Stewart underlined the need for an open and transparent government, citing the fact that lobbyists are able to meet with officials in City Hall without registering, making it difficult to monitor how special interests are influencing local politics. “I’ll change that,” he said.

Mayor Marks sidestepped some of his opponent’s criticism by touting a number of personal achievements, from serving as a JAG officer in the Air Force and being a member of the Public Service Commission to development efforts such as the $35 million Gaines Street Revitalization Project. He also highlighted Tallahassee’s distinction as the first gold-certified city in the state according to the Florida Green Building Coalition, Inc., and defended himself against the charges of exorbitant utility rates, claiming they are below the state average.

The mayor also reiterated his stance on smart grids and metering systems, claiming “that is the future.” His opponent referred to smart meters as “the biggest boondoggle in the community” at an estimated cost of $50 million, pointing out the fact that the city is already dipping into its reserve fund.

Marks answered a question from the audience regarding a recent 15-percent tax increase by explaining the revenue was necessary for law enforcement and first responders. In his rebuttal, Stewart claimed to have submitted proposals that would have avoided the tax increase, but was ignored by city officials.

“Don’t use police to raise taxes in a recession,” Stewart replied. “With an $800 million budget they could have found $2 million elsewhere.”

Larry Hendricks, a third candidate who just days ago filed his papers to officially join the race, did not attend the event. A straw poll at the end of the event resulted in 34 votes for Stewart, 33 for Marks and 6 for Hendricks

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