Incumbent Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto and challenger Steve Avila answered questions during a two-hour candidate forum presented by the Town-Crier newspaper on Monday, Jan. 29 at Royal Palm Beach Village Hall.
The forum was presented in partnership with the Village of Royal Palm Beach, the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County and featured a panel of questioners from the newspaper and the chambers, moderated by retired WPTV news anchor Jim Sackett.
The race for mayor is the only Royal Palm Beach municipal race on the Tuesday, March 19 ballot. The two candidates began with their opening statements.
“I grew up in Royal Palm Beach,” Avila said. “I went to Cypress Trails Elementary School. I graduated from Royal Palm Beach High School. Royal Palm Beach is my home, and over the last 12 years or so, I’ve noticed that we never really have contested elections. We never really have high voter turnout. Very few votes are actually needed to get elected. I want to change that. I want to make sure that RPB has more transparency. I want to make sure that developers aren’t playing a large role in the process here.”
He voiced concerns over the growth and development in the village, with an emphasis on keeping its small-town charm intact. If elected, he would be the first home-grown Royal Palm Beach resident to sit on the council.
During his opening statement, Pinto noted his many years of experience and service to the village.
“Royal Palm Beach is a tremendous place to live, and I’ve had the honor of being a public servant to you, the citizens of Royal Palm Beach, for the last 20 years. The reality is we’ve moved the village into a position that is unprecedented. We have established a high level of excellence,” he said. “We don’t have issues in Royal Palm Beach. We have a challenge. Our challenge is to sustain the level of excellence that we’ve achieved, and the levels of service and safety of living here for our citizens.”
Questions kicked off with a request for both candidates to share their top three goals over the next two years if elected.
“Bringing more transparency in government. It’s very difficult to get access to a lot of documents here, whereas in other municipalities, I can go straight to their web site, and I can find that,” said Avila, who used the example of campaign contributions, which require contacting the village clerk to obtain.
He expressed concerns over developers presenting projects to the village while also writing checks to campaigns. “One of the major things I want to do is change exactly that,” Avila said. “I vow not to take contributions from anyone who will be doing a project in the village. That’s priority No. 1.”
Pinto was put off by the accusations of a lack of transparency.
“We have a procedure in place, and we are fully compliant with public records request law. We have a very lean staff, but we do respond to those requests when they’re made,” Pinto said. “We are not in competition with other cities.”
Pinto said he is very proud of the planned expansion of the Royal Palm Beach Recreation Center.
“We want to expand the availability of resources for our senior citizens,” he said. “It’s our youth programs within the village as well. We are going to have an additional gymnasium, which will mean we won’t have to borrow and use the school’s gymnasium. I think it’s going to be another tremendous asset that will expand the capability at our rec center.”
On the topic of recreation, Avila spoke of a need for senior activities that allow for non-English speakers, such as his own grandmothers. He feels there is a segment of local residents unable to benefit from many programs for that reason.
Ilan Kaufer, external affairs manager for FPL and panel representative for the two chambers, followed up with a question asking both candidates what they view as challenges for local businesses.
Avila responded that following local ordinances is the biggest challenge. Pinto focused his answer to his wanting the best available goods and services for village residents.
“We are living in challenging times for the business landscape. One of the challenges businesses face is an inflationary environment,” Pinto said. “It’s costing them more to deliver goods and services than in the past, and there’s a push back from the customer.”
Pinto said he plans to bring back his “Coffee with the Mayor” as a way to better connect with businesses in the area.
Kaufer also asked about each candidate’s leadership style.
“I’ve been applying my leadership style since I’ve been elected,” Pinto said. “I’m a public servant. I’m here to serve the people of this community. I’m not a politician — never have been, never will be. Part of my style is also fiscal intelligence.”
After expressing faith in the village staff, Avila said, “In terms of leadership, it’s working with everyone on the council, regardless of if you agree completely on something or not. My leadership style is one where I believe everyone can work together for the betterment of the people.”
The discussion shifted to the Tuttle Royale project, which is bringing new development to the southernmost reaches of the village.
Avila made it clear the project was approved and in place, and he would simply have to deal with it moving forward.
“I am a little worried about the effects [Tuttle Royale] will have in terms of congestion, in terms of density, in terms of crime. These are all things that worry me and should be a priority as we move forward with the development of this new land that was annexed,” he said.
Pinto explained the annexation was by choice of the developer, and that he was pleased they chose to be a part of Royal Palm Beach.
“This is a place where it’s for the family to come and have family entertainment time, and not have to travel outside of the village,” Pinto said. “We’ve already addressed the issue that it’s going to be safe, and we’ve got the right level of policing.”
Pinto and Avila agreed on many fronts, including the success of working with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the quality of village parks and staff. But they didn’t agree on all aspects of running the village.
When asked about education in local schools, Pinto was quick to share the positive impact of the Education Advisory Board. Avila used the opportunity to explain his issues with the board.
“A question that I sometimes get asked is, why don’t I start by joining a committee. Well, professionally, I’ve been a college admissions consultant for quite a while now, and I know school policies and curriculum pretty well, and in spite of that, I don’t qualify to be on the Education Advisory Board,” he said.
Avila would like to see the rules to join such advisory committees changed to allow for more potential members.
Another point of contention between the candidates is Avila’s desire to lower the millage rate to help make housing more affordable. While Pinto agreed housing is a complex problem, he noted the attempts at fixing the problem with private sector development had failed over the past 15 years. He supports governments taking a more direct approach to solving the issue.
The forum also included a portion for questions posed by the public. That section began with responses to the new state law requiring local elected officials to complete what is called Form 6, which requires more extensive financial disclosures. Avila is not a fan of Form 6, as it discourages people from getting involved in the political process. Pinto feels the concept is a good thing, providing a direct line to transparency in local government.
When asked to share some major differences with their opponents, Avila brought up the philosophical difference between himself and Pinto on the matter of term limits. Avila is in favor of limits for council members. Pinto feels that term limits are determined by the voters making the choice.
“I didn’t want there to be another election where all three seats were going to go uncontested,” Avila said. “It’s a matter of bringing the village into the 21st century. My generation, and how we’ve grown up with the use of technology, is something that I really want our village to be using.”
In their closing statements, both candidates addressed the public directly.
“Royal Palm Beach is a special place,” Pinto said. “We are focusing on what is the right thing to do concerning our citizens to maintain the wonderful quality of life that we’ve experienced here — and sustain that level of excellence going forward.”
“I love this place. I grew up here,” Avila said. “I have ideas, and I have energy, and I have relationships. I represent people who have far too long been unheard, and for the first time, there can be someone who actually grew up in Royal Palm Beach on the village council, and that’s amazing.”
The entire mayoral forum is available to watch online through the Village of Royal Palm Beach’s YouTube page or at the following direct link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFlUhuzjgCc.