The three candidates vying for the District 6 seat on the Palm Beach County Commission participated in a forum hosted Thursday, Oct. 23 by the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association.
Democratic candidate Melissa McKinlay, Republican candidate Andy Schaller and independent candidate Michelle Santamaria are seeking the seat being vacated by term-limited County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, Michelle Santamaria’s father.
Santamaria moved here with her family when she was 9 months old and attended local schools. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Florida, a master’s degree in business administration from Rollins College and a law degree from Stetson University.
Upon graduating from law school, she became a criminal prosecutor with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. After several years, she started her own business training law enforcement officials how to testify effectively in court.
“Now, I’m running for county commission to remember the place that I grew up in and continue the legacy that my father started here,” she said. “The main focus is to continue to have honesty in government and protecting our quality of life. The life that I remember as a kid growing up is slowly being eaten away by special interests and builders and developers.”
Santamaria said growth is inevitable, but it has to be responsible, intelligent and compatible.
Schaller moved to Florida in 1983 to attend college, graduated in 1987 and bought his first of two homes in District 6 in 1990. “Both of them are agriculturally exempt properties,” he said. “I have a barn in Wellington, and I created a dressage facility. I like the lifestyle I have chosen. This is where I have made my forever investments.”
For the last 20 years, he has owned a business called Palm Beach Financial Exchange. “I’ve handled more than 550 businesses across the U.S. and Puerto Rico,” he said. “I have an electronic banking company that focuses on recurring transactions.”
Schaller said he became involved in county government and property rights issues after purchasing his property. “In the past six years, I have pretty much not missed a single county commission meeting,” he said, adding that he has spoken to the county commission on many issues. “The one nearest and dearest to my heart is preservation of lifestyle and property rights. That’s why I’ve been around for the last six years, fighting for our neighborhood.”
McKinlay moved to the area in 2004 and has lived in Florida since 1977, attending Florida public schools. A graduate of Florida State University, she has three teenage children and has worked for the past four and a half years in the county’s legislative affairs office. “I have been giving back to my community since I moved here,” she said.
McKinlay decided to run for office after the county administrator offered the commission an option to cut funding to youth empowerment programs in some municipalities that had withheld funding to the Office of the Inspector General.
“I walked into the county administrator’s office and told him that I was upset with the decision that he made,” she said. “Those empowerment centers provide homework assistance and tutoring, and arts and culture and educational programs. They provide a lot of those kids with the last meal they’ll get before they go back to school the next morning.”
McKinlay noted that she totally supports the inspector general’s office, but objected to a trade-off of youth funding to pay for it.
“I want to be completely clear: I support 100 percent the Office of the Inspector General and the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission, and I commend the current commissioner for what he has done over the years,” she said. “But as a mother, I believe we should hold children harmless.”
Resident Dr. Bill Louda asked each of the candidates if they favor the proposed Minto West project, and all said they do not. Louda also asked about the candidates’ possible obligations due to contributions they have received.
Schaller said campaign contributions are a non-issue for him.
“I pretty much self-funded my own campaign in 2010, and for the most part, I’m doing it now with some contributions from a handful of friends,” he said. “I’m beholden to no one.”
McKinlay said she feels fortunate to have received a variety of financial support, including from the business community, individuals, firefighters and law enforcement.
“I am happy to have that support,” she said. “I have taken nine to 10 weeks of unpaid leave from the county. I’m not in a position that I can self-fund my campaign. I have counted on community support, and I am very grateful to have received that support. However, that does not beholden me to anybody, and everyone who has contributed to my campaign has been told that clearly.”
Santamaria said she does not accept contributions from builders or developers. “My only concern is representing what the majority of the people of the community want, no strings attached,” she said.
Resident Dennis Lipp asked how far the candidates would go to gain more control over the budget of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which accounts for about half the county’s budget.
McKinlay said she would support making the sheriff’s budget more transparent.
“Unfortunately, under statute, we’re not able to require him to do anything, so that would take a state change at the legislature,” she said, adding that she would support making the entire budget process more transparent.
McKinlay recalled her time working in Sarasota County, where there were public budget workshops in which all constitutional officers and county departments made line-by-line presentations.
“We don’t do anything like that here,” she said. “If I am elected, I would like to institute a process that does that… and try to encourage a good relationship with the sheriff and see if we can bring him on board and make it more open to the public.”
Santamaria also favored making the PBSO budget more transparent.
“In order to open it up, I would sit down and try to communicate all the benefits to the community as a whole to being more transparent with the budget,” she said. “You could get more citizens on board if they fully understood the reasoning and the importance of all the different aspects of the sheriff’s office and what it encompasses.”
Schaller said the county commission does have options on what to do about the sheriff’s budget.
“If the county commission does not accept his budget, then the process is to send it up to the governor,” he said. “The governor and his panel then review the budget. We can very easily, as seven people sitting there, force the sheriff to have a review by Tallahassee.”
Asked whether any of the constitutional officers should be brought under the jurisdiction of the county commission, Santamaria said she thought they should all be separate but that the most important position to remember is the inspector general.
“We need an independent inspector general who is not influenced nor has any strings attached or required by the county commission or influenced in any way,” she said. “That way, everything is protected.”
Schaller said he would prefer a referendum to determine term limits for constitutional officers, and also favors keeping the offices separate.
“We’re not building a structure where seven people run 1.7 million people’s lives in totality,” he said. “I would not take further responsibility under the county commission off of the constitutionally elected officers that we have now.”
McKinlay agreed with Schaller that there should be checks and balances, pointing out, for example, that the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s Office has the authority to review and possibly deny funding for items approved by the county commission.
She pointed out that last year, Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock turned down a request approved by the commission to pay $5,000 for a table for county staff at the Mayor’s Ball.
“They wanted that on the taxpayers’ dime, and that request came to Ms. Bock,” McKinlay said. “She denied it, and I agree with that decision.”
Asked about the relationship of District 6 with the rest of the county, Schaller said he thought there is an imbalance of services. “You don’t have the same services, you don’t have the same facilities, and you don’t have the same access that you do in other parts of the county,” he said.
He said the best way to fix that is to take a leadership role. “Stand in front of the people and be accountable,” Schaller said. “Let the people of the western communities know who you are by sight, not just by being somebody on the wall at the airport.”
McKinlay said that although District 6 is by far the largest, it has been underrepresented for years. She said that is abundantly evident in the Glades, but also in the western communities, pointing out a fire station in The Acreage operates out of a shopping center.
“That station has been in the shopping mall for 15 years, costing us about $10,500 a month in rent,” she said. “The apparatus is sitting out in open air, unprotected.”
Santamaria noted that District 6 has by far the most undeveloped land.
“Over the next several years, we’ve got to be very, very cautious and aware of any action we take toward growth and development,” she said. “Once you allow for overdevelopment, we can never get that back.”