Candidates for the Wellington Village Council met for the final time Thursday, March 1 to answer questions for voters as part of a forum hosted by the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce.
Two Wellington council seats and the mayor’s seat are up for grabs in the Tuesday, March 13 election.
Wellington Mayor Darell Bowen is seeking re-election and faces a challenge from former Councilman Bob Margolis. Vice Mayor Matt Willhite is also seeking re-election to Seat 4. He has drawn a challenge from former Councilman Al Paglia.
Seat 1, currently held by term-limited Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Carmine Priore, is being sought by two political newcomers, John Greene and Shauna Hostetler.
Five of the six candidates attended the March 1 forum. Paglia was ill and unable to attend. Members of the press fielded questions to the candidates, while retired WPTV anchorman Jim Sackett moderated.
In one of the most controversial topics of the night, candidates were questioned about the effect of outside influences on the election.
Hostetler said that a smear campaign has turned the election’s focus onto one issue, the Equestrian Village project.
“There’s so many other things we need to talk about,” she said. “I think it’s more important to talk about ways we can compromise. I don’t think it’s a good use of time or money.”
Greene said that there were many issues in the campaign that should be addressed. “To focus on one specific issue… is disingenuous,” he said. “I certainly will spend a lot of my time focusing on those issues.”
Willhite said that character and respect are always important in an election. “We have a great village here,” he said. “The issues that should be at the forefront are those that affect our village. We have to look out for our residents. There have been special interests in every election, but it comes down to what’s best for residents.”
Bowen, the primary target of those opposed to the Equestrian Village project, called the campaign against him “despicable” and said it is not how politics should be practiced in Wellington.
“What we have here is one very wealthy man who is determined to buy this election,” Bowen said, referring to wealthy equestrian property owner Jeremy Jacobs. “He has funded his PAC with more than $250,000. It’s very clearly a lot of money being thrown at an election, and you have to wonder why.”
Margolis said he has always supported election finance reform for this very reason.
“If it was up to me,” he said, “we’d have debates like this and any money raised would go to charity. We have no control what outside interests do.”
He pointed out, however, that Bowen once took contributions from the same person who is now attacking him.
“He took campaign funds in his last election,” he said. “It’s interesting to see that [Bowen] doesn’t agree with what he’s doing now, considering he’s taken funds from him before.”
Bowen admitted to receiving donations from the Jacobs family in the past and wondered whether that was the impetus behind the negative campaign.
“I think I know why the smear campaign against me,” he said. “I accepted some campaign contributions from him, but it didn’t buy my vote.”
On the heels of Wellington’s municipal complex receiving its LEED gold certification, candidates were asked what they would do to keep Wellington “green.”
Hostetler said she would look to preserve existing green space. “I’d be very careful, for example, about what goes on that K-Park land,” she said. “I would want to continue to support our parks and preserve our green space.”
Willhite noted that Wellington has dedicated 365 acres at the Wellington Environmental Preserve and is growing trees on village-owned property, among other measures. “We’re promoting the idea of the village having clean energy,” he said. “We’re a tree city, and we’re going to continue to promote that.”
Bowen pointed out that the new municipal complex is a green building and is a standard that can be used in future buildings. “I think what’s important is that we’ve adopted a culture that considers the environment in every decision we make,” he said.
Margolis noted that when he was on the council, he approved the purchase of K-Park. “I absolutely support preservation of green space,” he said.
Greene said he would seek a balance between responsible growth and sustainability. “It’s critically important that we protect the environment,” he said. “I would make sure we are not doing things to overdevelop property or to impede on what is considered protected land.”
Asked about their vision for the new Wellington Community Center, candidates seemed to feel it should be a multi-generational center.
“It should be utilized for programs by seniors as well as everyone else in our village,” Willhite said. “I would also like for it to have some kind of banquet facility that can bring some revenue into the facility and make it cost-efficient.”
Bowen said he hoped it was designed primarily to meet the needs of seniors.
“That is one part of our population that is growing,” he said, “that we may not have put as many resources into. I think we have to keep the seniors’ needs in mind as we build this facility.”
Margolis said it would be a crucial building for the seniors and thought that their input has not been taken into consideration.
“What has been done is that they’ve just asked for their approval,” he said. “They developed plans, and the seniors had a lot of issues with those plans. I always envisioned a separate senior center right next to the tennis courts. While it’s going to be multi-generational, it needs to meet the needs of seniors.”
Greene said that since the facility is being built with tax dollars, it should meet the needs of a wide variety of residents. “I think that there are ways to get input from the senior community and understand what the other needs are,” he said. “I think we can use it as a multi-use facility.”
Hostetler said that the new community center would be a hub of activity.
“I believe we need to make sure that it’s conducive to our senior residents’ needs,” she said. “I foresee it to be the mecca for seniors, for teens, for all ages. I want to see it be the center of town again.”
The village recently put out a request for proposals regarding the K-Park site on State Road 7. Candidates were asked what they’d like to see happen with the land.
Bowen said that he was eager to see the proposals but hoped to use the property to bring high-wage jobs.
“We’re well beyond the amount of park space that we need,” he said. “What we do need are jobs. I think we have a great opportunity to look at some options that may create some good-paying jobs and broaden our tax base. It will also give people the opportunity to afford to buy some of these foreclosed homes.”
Margolis said that he envisions the land as a science and technology park, possibly with some form of higher education on it.
“I would like to see if the University of Florida would like to open up a satellite office for its veterinary school,” he said. “I think that we have a lot of opportunities with our equestrian community to bring in an equestrian-type facility so that all of the village would benefit from it.”
Greene noted that whatever decision is made, it should be done carefully. He noted that with the land rented out, the cost of caring for the property is covered. “I wouldn’t rush to sell the land,” he said. “Wellington has to continue to grow and look at its options.”
Hostetler said she would want to see a project that enhances the community but doesn’t put a strain on local business. “It needs to be something different,” she said. “We need to look at unique things, such as a science and technology park.”
Willhite said that the land is an asset to Wellington and said he would only support something that keeps it as an asset to all. “Whatever it is,” he said, “it has to benefit the village as a whole.”