Jeff Hmara and Selena Smith — the two remaining candidates seeking the vacant Seat 1 on the Royal Palm Beach Village Council — participated in a candidates forum Wednesday night.
Ken DeLaTorre, the third candidate in the race, withdrew Wednesday morning. He cited an unexpected job opportunity as the reason for his decision.
Incumbent Mayor Matty Mattioli, who faces a challenge from Felicia Matula, did not appear at the forum because he was out of town, according to Village Clerk Diane DiSanto.
As a result, Matula, who was at the forum with about a dozen supporters, did not participate. She did, however, make a brief speech introducing herself after the forum was over.
The forum, held in the Royal Palm Beach Village Council chambers, was organized by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.
Hmara introduced himself as a retired U.S. Army colonel who now serves as an adjunct professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He has been married 42 years and has two grown children.
After retiring from the Army, he worked in administrative positions for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration.
Since moving to Royal Palm Beach in 2003, he and his wife, Carolyn, have both been active in the community. He was on the Crestwood Redevelopment Task Force established last year by the council and is currently president of the Madison Green Master Homeowners’ Association, which represents 1,145 homes.
“I have had an opportunity because of those qualities and experiences to really become aware of the issues that affect us here in Royal Palm Beach,” he said.
Smith grew up in Antigua in the West Indies and went to high school and college in Miami, where she graduated from Barry University with a degree in marketing. She worked with sports teams in South Florida before transferring to Wisconsin for eight years, and moved back to South Florida to help her mother open a small business.
“I was doing some volunteer work out here in the western communities, moved out here and bought our first home,” she said. “My husband and I have been married almost four years now.”
Smith is vice president and president-elect of the Royal Palm Beach Rotary Club. “We have donated dictionaries to every third-grader in Royal Palm Beach,” she said. “We fed over 420 families with our Thanksgiving project. We did a breakfast with Santa for neighborhood kids as well.”
Smith also serves in several capacities with the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce and is on the board of directors of Women of the Western Communities, which works with the YWCA’s Harmony House, a safe house for battered women and children.
Asked how their backgrounds prepare them for the office, Smith responded that her work with the Rotary and the Economic Development Task Force has given her insight into the needs of small businesses.
Through Women of the Western Communities, she has participated in numerous charity events to help raise awareness for battered and abused women and children, and for the past three years, she has helped the chamber with the Royal Palm Art & Music Festival.
Hmara said he offers years of government service, leadership and organizational skills.
“Also, since we moved down here, for the past nine years I’ve been involved in different activities, not the least of which is the homeowners’ association, which gives a grassroots perspective on what actually the needs are of the community,” he said.
Hmara added that his experience with the Crestwood Redevelopment Task Force gave him insight into the workings of Royal Palm Beach government.
“It gave me a lot of insight to the land use designation process all the way up through and including permitting, as well as an opportunity to get to know what the residents of the community are seeking in the form of reasonable and balanced development,” he said.
Teaching at Palm Beach Atlantic has also given him perspective on what young adults in the area seek to accomplish, he added.
Candidates were asked what they would do to fill the remaining vacant parcels in the village.
Hmara said that he supported the decision by the Aldi grocery store chain to locate a 500,000-square-foot regional distribution center in the village on 70 acres off State Road 7.
“Supporting the implementation of that is a really important thing because while bringing jobs and various other benefits, there’s also likely to be some significant activity in that area,” he said, adding that the center needs to be buffered so the immediate residents aren’t adversely affected.
Hmara added that he would follow through on the Crestwood Redevelopment Task Force recommendation for mixed uses with primarily residential as a land use designation. The project has been tabled by the council indefinitely. “The intention, I believe, was to make sure that the land was truly compatible with the neighboring areas,” he said.
Smith said filling vacant space must also include filling vacant storefronts. “We do have some vacant parcels if you’re looking for the land that needs to be developed,” she said. “We have quite a few spaces left. Our vacant storefronts — that’s also something that we need to take into consideration. I would like to work with the small business owners and make sure that those parcels that are built are occupied again.”
With the economy still forcing possible budget constraints, the candidates were asked where they would cut.
Hmara said he would go through the budget line by line and review fully what the village’s needs are to find cost-saving opportunities, and also look at what capital projects might be deferred. He also pointed out that the village has a substantial reserve that could be considered to stave off substantial budget cuts.
Smith said she would look at each item separately. “We don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” she said. “We can see how to generate revenues.”
Increasing job opportunities would also serve to increase the tax base, she said.
Asked about their position on the possibility of reopening the now bermed-over Madrid Street connection to the State Road 7 extension, Smith said she felt that traffic seems to be moving smoothly right now. She pointed out that Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue has advocated opening it to cut down on response times, which would also increase traffic, but said she might consider it in the future.
Hmara said he would be concerned about more traffic on Madrid if the connection were opened.
Last year, the council split 2-2 in its decision to prevent a woman from giving infant swimming lessons in her home pool, which was a violation of village code. Both candidates said they would have upheld the existing village code.
Smith said she was at that council meeting. “The facts I got was that there was a business being conducted in a residential area,” she said. “There are some things that become obtrusive to neighbors or to the village itself, and I was glad to see that alternatives were given in order to make that happen.”
Hmara agreed. “I think it was recognized at that meeting that that service was an important service,” he said. “It is unfortunate that the business was in a residential area, and I agree that having options for that individual to continue providing that very critical service was a good thing.”
Asked their goals for the village, Smith said she wanted to promote small business. “Small business is the backbone of the village,” she said, explaining that she would encourage residents to use small businesses for their services.
Hmara said his goal would be to promote open communications. Referring to the first Crestwood initiative, which was to promote a business park, he said he thought communication could have been better. “Some residents felt the plans were fairly well along without input of residents,” he said.