Six candidates for three seats on the Royal Palm Beach Village Council squared off in a forum Monday, hosted by the Town-Crier and moderated by retired WPTV News Channel 5 anchor Jim Sackett.
Councilman Fred Pinto and former Councilwoman Martha Webster are seeking the mayoral seat, while Lenore White is challenging incumbent Jeff Hmara for Seat 1 and Selena Smith is challenging incumbent Vice Mayor Richard Valuntas for Seat 3.
During introductions, Hmara, a four-year councilman, noted that he graduated from the Citadel, led artillery commands in Vietnam, Korea and Germany, and rose to full colonel before his retirement, whereupon he managed programs for the National Atmospheric & Oceanographic Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in management. He and his wife, Carolyn, have lived in Madison Green for 13 years.
White, who lives in Greenway Village, said she thinks there’s a disconnect between residents and those who manage the village.
“My motive to run was to be sure that this is the community we want instead of a future decline in the quality of life,” she said. “We need help to restore transparency, honesty, trust and listen to the residents, not just a select few.”
Pinto said that he has had the pleasure of serving the community for nearly 13 years during a period of extraordinary success for the village.
“Our village was chosen one of the 10 best places to raise a family because, as council members, we made decisions based on what was best for the village and the citizens, and we listen to our citizens,” he said. “This comment that we are disconnected is absolutely false, and I don’t understand where it is coming from. This village is where it is today through hard work, and working closely and listening closely to what our citizens want and what their needs are. Now that Mayor Matty Mattioli is moving on, it is my intent to make sure that this village stays on the right track.”
Webster, who has lived in the village for 20 years, previously served on the council for five years. “I am very pleased to say that I have been endorsed by [Councilman] David Swift,” she said. “I am honored because many of you know that David and I have not always shared the same point of view, but we both share the same passion for this village and the desire for this village to move forward as a family community.”
Webster pointed out that she was on the council while Commons Park was being created and taxes were being reduced.
“I was part of all of that, too,” she said. “The point is where are we going from here, and I am concerned about some of the decisions that have been made recently.”
Smith said that she has been a village resident since 2009, and she is raising her family here.
“One of the things that drove me to run this year was small businesses and transparency in the village,” she said. “We also have a problem with our elder population, so that they have somewhere to belong, and making options for our children.”
Valuntas has been on the council for almost six years, and a resident for 14 years. He has three children who all were born in the village and attend local public schools.
“My day job is keeping bad guys in jail as an assistant attorney general in the Criminal Appeals Division,” he said.
An almost lifelong South Florida resident, Valuntas was born outside Philadelphia, attended public schools in South Florida and received bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees from Florida State University.
The candidates then took turns answering more than a dozen questions on a wide range of topics posed by Town-Crier staff members and submitted by members of the public.
Asked what they would like to see done with the many millions of dollars the village has accumulated from the sale of its water utilities and a recent land sale, Hmara said the council has already taken steps to pay off its debt on Commons Park, rather than continue to pay interest on the bond.
“We decided that we would pay down the one bond issue that we have… in order to be able to remove the debt, which was a substantial burden each year, more than a million dollars,” he said. “We decided to pay off that loan, which was about $15 million.”
White said that there is about $42 million in the budget.
“I have a copy here,” she said. “I have read budgets all of my career life, and this does not include raw data or detail,” she said. “It’s very difficult to obtain the right data from the village. We have a lot of dollars, and where are they going?”
She also asked what happened to money that was given by the village to the new Aldi regional distribution center that was supposed to go to landscaping, which some residents complain has not been done.
“Paying off debt is a wonderful thing, but until I can get a complete budget with raw data in it, I’m not qualified to answer this question,” White said.
Pinto said he was a key player in the decision to sell the water utility that put the village in a great financial position.
“The fact of the matter is that the decision has made the village $103 million,” he said. “The right decision was made to retire the debt because we’re paying more in interest than we could earn if we put the money in the bank. That was a very easy financial decision to make.”
Pinto said one of his goals is to get the village to a zero millage rate by taking advantage of its favorable financial standing and the recently increasing property values.
Webster agreed that the village is in good financial position.
“We’ve run it like a business for years, and I, too, was part of that,” she said. “The right thing was done by paying down our debt. We are debt-free. It costs more to have debt than to invest. We will have $75 million remaining in reserves.”
She said that the reserve put the village in a good position to weather through the recession, but said caution should be exercised in what to do with the remaining reserve.
Smith said that as a business major, she agreed that paying down the debt was wise. “We were paying more interest than we were earning by retaining it,” she said.
Although she agreed with paying off the existing loan, she added that there are still expenses being incurred in finishing the park.
“They’ve done a great job with it, but there are things that need to be done to it,” she said. “We’re also talking about parks in the area, and many of them are starting to decline. Veterans Park just had some issues with the kids’ playground there, so that, to me, has to be looked at.”
Valuntas said that the money from the water utility sale has been a source of revenue for the village for many years.
“I think it might be a good idea to keep some of these reserves, because one of the original purposes for the water plant sale was to keep the revenue stream coming into the village,” he said.
He also agreed with Pinto that the village would be in a position to further reduce the tax rate as property values improve.
Asked about the way council meetings are run and what they would like to see done differently, White said that there is not enough advertising for people to know when council meetings are going on.
“They need to expand more than 300 feet when they are going to build something, to inform residents of the plans, and you should advertise,” she said. “If we record every town meeting and give citizens the ability to download those meetings, that would help, but that would not eliminate the conversations that transpire in backroom deals. Technical reviews currently are not available to the public, and somebody needs to explain to me why that is.”
Pinto said he wants meetings to be cordial, and to create an environment of inclusiveness for citizens.
“We meet or exceed all of the requirements for publications and notifications,” he said. “Our council meetings are the first and third Thursdays of every month. That is a matter of public record.”
Webster said council meetings are for the people.
“The people need the opportunity to come forward and be heard,” she said. “In the last couple of years, people have been shut off when they tried to speak. I believe this should be an open meeting. I believe people should have the opportunity to speak, and I think the agenda should be constructed so they have more time to speak than they have.”
Smith shared Webster’s concerns about council interaction with the public. “I have been somebody who has tried to approach the council on various reasons,” she said. “Sometimes they have been favorable, sometimes they haven’t. Mr. Pinto said the council meets on first and third Thursdays. Perhaps that is a problem with residents and it is something that needs to be looked at. Perhaps the time is also an issue.”
Valuntas said he thinks council meetings are publicized fairly well. “There’s more than enough access to [information],” he said. “Sometimes I’ve been not happy with the way some of the meetings have been conducted, and the way sometimes things get out of hand. I definitely see with the two folks running for mayor tonight that that will be addressed and it won’t be an issue anymore, but I want us to do better.”
Hmara agreed with Valuntas that the meetings could improve interactions with the public.
“Sometimes it’s as subtle as body language,” he said. “One of the things I’ve tried to focus on is whenever someone is speaking, I try not to have sidebar conversations… I’m also watching the speaker, because eye contact is so powerful… The bottom line of a good meeting is not only an orderly meeting, but also one where there is mutual respect.”
Asked about what the council can do to bring new business to the village, Webster said that Royal Palm Beach has been successful in that regard.
“I was part of bringing Aldi in, but I was not happy with the RaceTrac [gas station], as you well know,” she said. “That’s because I felt it was the wrong project in the wrong place. However, if we had been able to get the 12 pumps, it would have worked very well.”
Smith said that, coming from a long line of entrepreneurs, she thought the village does not do enough to help mom-and-pop businesses.
“We do have quite a few large businesses that come through here, and I think they’re represented well. However, the heart and soul of what makes us a village are mom-and-pop shops,” she said. “If you put those people out of business, I lose that touch and that small-town feel.”
Valuntas said that in his time on the council, he believes it has done a tremendous job bringing businesses into the village.
“Aldi was a huge boon in not only bringing in the business and the revenue that it will generate, but more important is the jobs it creates,” he said. “I know a young family that my son plays baseball with. They were struggling with employment. Now I’m happy to say the mom is a manager at the Aldi warehouse, and she has promising, longtime stable employment — and that is exactly the kind of thing the council wants to do.”
Hmara said that the village has reached out to new businesses both directly and indirectly through local organizations.
“We also play a role in the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, and we stay involved with many of their initiatives,” he said. “One of the things I’d like to do is get businesses involved with internships, working with our schools. The whole idea being to make a connection between business and our kids as they are growing up.”
White said that she owned a small business years ago, and that it’s very important to a village.
“What I’m hearing is that there is a challenge, as Selena said, for mom-and-pop stores,” she said. “The signage code here in the village needs to be addressed and looked at [so] that logos may be allowed to be put on the marquees.”
She suggested that people check out the Western Business Alliance for local operators, rather than patronizing big-box stores.
Pinto agreed that small business is crucial to the economy.
“I believe it’s something like 90 percent of all business in Florida are classified as small businesses,” he said. “This village has worked very hard to expedite processing and application processes to help any projects that come before us that are going to bring growth to the village.”
He said that many times, the council finds itself wishing it could do more for small business enterprises. “The reality is, the markets will do what the markets will do,” he said.
Other question topics included fighting crime in the community, road maintenance, recreation issues, services for seniors and more. A video of the entire forum can be found at www.royalpalmbeach.com/mediacenter.aspx.
ABOVE: (L-R) Moderator Jim Sackett with Royal Palm Beach candidates Jeff Hmara, Lenore White, Fred Pinto, Martha Webster, Richard Valuntas and Selena Smith.