At the end of the qualifying period for the Royal Palm Beach Village Council election last week, incumbent Mayor Fred Pinto and Group 3 incumbent Councilwoman Selena Samios were returned to their seats unopposed.
However, Group 1 incumbent Councilman Jeff Hmara faces a challenge from Julie Highsmith, a former member of the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board and president of the H.L. Johnson Elementary School PTO. The election will be held on Tuesday, March 8.
Highsmith, a 36-year resident, has lived in Royal Palm Beach since she was 5 years old. She and her husband Bill have three daughters. Highsmith attended Florida Atlantic University, where she earned a bachelor’s of business administration degree, double majoring in management and marketing.
“When I graduated college, I opened a homecare health company in Wellington,” she said. “I was a nationally certified professional geriatric care manager. In 2020, I decided I was no longer going to do that, and my husband was supportive of me changing careers. So, I’m going into elementary education. I’m in the process of getting hired by the school district.”
Highsmith served for three-and-a-half years on the village’s Education Advisory Board, serving as chair last year.
“I had to stop, because if I was a school district teacher, you no longer qualify to be on the Education Advisory Board,” she explained. “Since I had to give up my spot there, I thought, well, I’ll just run for the village council.”
Highsmith has been the H.L. Johnson PTO president for the past five years. “I’ve done tremendous things over there raising money, helping build up the school garden, tons of fundraising, working with all the volunteers there,” she said, adding that over the past several years, many people have suggested that she run for the council. “I really enjoyed what I was doing on the Education Advisory Board. Also, I hear people saying they want a change. So, I feel like I have a lot to offer.”
Hmara is wrapping up his fifth two-year term on the council. He noted that he recommended Highsmith’s appointment to the Education Advisory Board.
His 10 years of service on the council started by his questioning the development of the village’s old wastewater treatment plant. Now the BellaSera residential development, it was earlier proposed for a mix of commercial and residential uses.
“That’s what got me engaged, and I was on that task force. I could see that whole initiative was going to require some intense attention going forward,” he said. “Back in 2012, I ran for an open seat, and went on from there. I think we’ve done really well as a council over the past 10 years.”
Hmara, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said his key is to be a good listener and to be open-minded.
“I think I’ve done a good job of that,” he said. “I’m always willing to go someplace to see what somebody is concerned about rather than just reading an e-mail or listening to a voice mail, but actually go and stand where they are standing and look at what they are looking at.”
Hmara said that practice has given him insight and sometimes helps influence the positions of other council members. He feels it has also enabled others to trust him.
One issue on the horizon is the redevelopment pressures on State Road 7, Hmara said. The council conducted a workshop on Wednesday, Nov. 17 to study redevelopment options for aging commercial development along the corridor.
“Not only are they aging, but we’ve seen the impact on brick-and-mortar retail, which has been exaggerated as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and our experience with online stuff. So, the question is what those areas look like when they redevelop, and the consequences of what that might be,” Hmara said.
He expects the future of SR 7 to be more of a mix of development uses, as opposed to just pure retail that is there right now.
The village is also working with the Transportation Planning Agency for transit possibilities on Okeechobee Blvd. due to the growing population.
“[Traffic congestion] ultimately has a huge impact on the quality of life,” Hmara said. “At our own initiative, we figured out that now is a great time to be taking a hard look at this and trying to lay out a master plan for that redevelopment activity.”