City of Fort Walton Beach elections: What you need to know before you vote

Kevin Robinson
Northwest Florida Daily News

Okaloosa County voters will head back to the polls in early March to vote in a number of municipal elections.

A total of 10 municipal seats across Fort Walton Beach, Laurel Hill and Shalimar are on the ballot March 9, although in many instances the candidates who qualified for the seats are running unopposed.

Also on the ballot are a pair of local referendums: One will ask whether Laurel Hill voters favor dissolving the city to become an unincorporated part of Okaloosa County. The other would amend Destin's charter to prevent the city from conveying, selling, leasing or otherwise transferring its interest in any city park without a supermajority vote of the City Council.

Early voting will be March 1-5 at the Okaloosa County Administration Building at 1250 Eglin Parkway in Shalimar and the Crestview office of the Supervisor of Elections Office at 302 Wilson St. Hours are 8:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. each day.

More:Laurel Hill residents fill 'The Barn' with questions about city's future

More:Official says Laurel Hill is staying just above water as vote nears to dissolve city

More:Destins voters to decide on change to charter involving city parks

Six of the 10 contests have already been decided.

Dick Rynearson and Mark Franks were both unchallenged for their roles as the respective mayors of Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar. Laurel Hill City Council members Mike Blizzard and Johnny James both retained their seats, as did Shalimar Town Commission members Ricardo Garcia and Brian Taylor.

In posts up for grabs, there is a 12-person race for three seats on the Fort Walton Beach City Council. Two people are vying to be mayor of Laurel Hill.

Here's a look at the candidates who will appear on the ballot in Fort Walton Beach.

The candidate profiles were conducted via questionnaire by the Northwest Florida Daily News. All of the answers were submitted to the Daily News by the candidate and are available to our readers to show the candidates' position and priorities on the issues. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The candidates in Laurel Hill's mayoral election will be featured in Monday's Daily News.

FORT WALTON BEACH CITY COUNCIL

More:12 Fort Walton Beach City Council candidates address issues at political forum

Twelve Fort Walton Beach City Council candidates gathered at the Civic Auditorium for a forum recently. Voters will go to the polls March 9 to decide who will take the three available council seats.

NIC ALLEGRETTO

Nic Allegretto speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Small business owner (Scooter Brothers on Racetrack Road)/ Fort Walton Beach city councilman (elected 2017), mayor pro tem

Why are you running for office? I love this city and I want to do everything I can to continue its current course of improvement. Our city has made a lot of progress and improvements during the past 5-10 years. Our residents value our police and fire departments and their quick response in times of emergency. Our residents love our city parks, youth programs and recycling program. All these services provided at reasonable rates are important to our way of life. And all the programs have seen significant improvement during the past four years. I have been an effective representative of our city's residents and business owners during my term. I will continue to move forward with making our city an even better place to live.

What makes you stand out from your opponents: Experience: I have served (nearly) a full term in this position. I have relationships with other elected officials around the county, with city staff, city business owners and community leaders that are tremendously beneficial to getting things done on behalf of our city's residents.

What are your three top priorities? 1. Solving our city's traffic problem. 2. Continuing to incentivize businesses to move to Fort Walton Beach. 3. Solving our city's affordable housing problem.

How would you implement Priority 1? We have been very successful in the past two years turning our city's vision for the "around the mound" traffic pattern from an idea to an actionable feasibility study (currently being conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation). This is the first major hurdle in getting this plan to actually happen. Our residents have told us that the traffic issue is a priority. So our City Council and city leadership will continue to push hard and work with (FDOT) to make it a reality.

How would you implement Priority 2? Our council has offered many incentives to small and large businesses to move into the city limits. For example, partly due to incentives offered by the city, the business "Beast Code" moved into the city in 2020 and will add more than 40 new employees before the end of 2021. The are good-paying jobs that attract smart, young professionals to our city.

There is more work to be done. Our residents have told us that bringing good-paying jobs into our city is a priority. So we will continue to offer incentives and work with community leaders to make it happen.

How would you implement Priority 3? In November of 2020 our council held the city's first ever workforce/affordable housing workshop. We brought together developers, builders, the Housing Authority and property owners to discuss the needs, challenges and opportunities in our city.

While many good ideas and potential opportunities arose from the meeting, there is still much work to do. Our residents have told us that this issue is a priority. So we will continue to develop these ideas into real action.

GLORIA J. DeBERRY

Gloria DeBerry speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: RN/CNS perioperative nurse consultant, risk manager, legal nurse consultant (retired), MS management and business administration, organizational consultant throughout the USA and around the world.

Why are you running for office? Attending City Council meetings for the past several years and a member of the Local Planning Agency, I am aware of the city’s strategic plan for building up “around the mound” to attract visitors and businesses. 

What are your three top priorities? 1. To bring transparency, public information to the city residents using the water bill in addition to the FWB website, newspaper notices, Facebook, YouTube and other social media. 2. Stop behind-the-door negotiations, in violation of the Sunshine Law, to build a new city maintenance complex on property zoned for Parks and Recreation and negotiating unapproved monies for a future City Hall building in the around the mound area. To question and require answers why city staff hinders residents' requests for permits to improve properties, impose fees on residents who “violate” a city ordinance, yet the city sanctions, aka violates, ordinances at will, such as allowing overnight construction with loud bulldozing, pounding jackhammers and sporting events in local areas with loud music/screaming fans, and cars parked in residents' yards tearing up the lawns and sprinkler systems

3. Encouraging the city staff to maintain a sustainable budget without hefty fees (fire fee), franchise fees to local business and utilities.

How would you implement Priority 1,2 and 3? I have brought the attention of including much needed public information, such as proposed fees, rezoning of public land(s), proposed city projects, City Council agendas and benefits such as exemption to proposed/approved fees, and more. Going door to door and listening to their concerns, many have stated they no longer subscribe to the newspaper because of cost, do not have internet or computers, do not listen to social media, etc. They do say they read their water bill and notices included. My meeting with a postmaster, providing my recent water bill with envelope showing postage, I asked how many more pages can be added with much needed public information for the same postage rate. The city can add 4-5 more pages for the same rate. 

Maintaining good relations with local business owners and residents who share their concerns and suggestions on city growth and sustainability has brought to light several behind-the-door activities that have been approved by current City Council researching the requests of increased taxes to “maintain” safety services and other high-dollar items is a high priority. I have discovered the city often redirects funds approved for specific project to other projects not mentioned in the request for funds.

I am well aware of the components of the FWB City Charter, the Sunshine Law, Roberts Rules of Order, The League of Cities, the Florida Statues and House bills in the pipeline which I frequently address to our Florida legislators.

JASON FLOYD

Jason Floyd speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Architect

Why are you running for office? There is a lot of momentum starting to build as we progress the city forward and I want to be sure it continues. Community is about the people who live in it and providing better for everyone! I have no agenda other than to do the right thing for our city.

What makes you stand out from your opponents? As an architect, my work is literally helping to shape the City of Fort Walton Beach. Projects specific to the city that enhances our community:

  • Landing Park renovations
  • Bud and Dorie Day Patriots Trail
  • One Hopeful Place-Phase I and II
  • Gulfview relocation effort
  • Chester Pruitt Park renovations

I have worked with multiple local governing authorities, developers and education systems to advance our community. I have performed renovations on various buildings downtown, designed new developments and worked with multiple nonprofit organizations over the last nine years to further their mission and outreach in our community.

Projects specific to nonprofits and community advancement include Opportunity Place preliminary discussions on expansion, Gregg Chapel Apartments "House of Valor," Sylvania Heights First Baptist Church entry canopy, Gathering Church build-out, Beachside Community Church, McKinnie Funeral Home, Fresh Start Community Building, Boys and Girls Club renovations, Arc Aquatic Center and Children in Crisis Therapy Center.

In 2017 I was awarded the American Institute of Architects, Northwest Florida Chapter, Community Service Honor Award for the work I have done in our community specific to many projects listed above. I say this to emphasize the focus I have on my work and how it impacts our community.

To provide a little clarity on a professional level, any direct contracts I currently have with the City of Fort Walton Beach will be void if I am elected to City Council so there is no conflict of interest.

What are your three top priorities? 1. To continue the momentum and direction of the development of downtown FWB and create a destination for our community. 2. Enhance communication between the city government and our neighborhoods so more citizens are aware of what is going on in the city. 3. There is a need for affordable/workforce housing in our area. As an architect I feel I can play a big role in this area.

How would you implement Priority 1? Remain involved with the direction of the Downtown Master Plan. We need to find out from the community what we all want downtown to be. I would bring a professional perspective to the table with my background in design and planning.

How would you implement Priority 2? People want to be included and know they have influence on the direction of our neighborhoods and communities. I would like to work on a better way of updating people on the status of the city and how decisions affect them. I have also discussed the idea of assembling neighbor groups to disperse information to people. This will be a work in progress.

How would you implement Priority 3? Get further involved with our local Building Industry Association and our surrounding Air Force base partners to truly understand the needs and create a direction to achieve the housing goals established.

SEAN T. MURPHY

Sean Murphy speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Photographer and director

Why are you running for office? I love seeing the progress the city is making. I want to see it continue. I also see some gaps in the sobriety and recovery in the area and I can be a big help with that.

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I guess you don't really think about creative people when you think about politics. I'm creative and visual and I don't have future political goals. I just want to help my city. I like learning and I like people, so if you put all that together, I think it's a good mix.

What are your three top priorities? 1. Support the great progress city officials are already making. I'm so excited to watch our downtown grow and our small businesses prosper. 2. Work on mental health and sobriety. 3. Share my experience in branding global companies with the city so we can attract more tourists and young people who will want to stay.

How would you implement Priority 1? Truly listen to what the business owners and citizens want and need to achieve their idea of success, and work closely with city officials to support them. 

How would you implement Priority 2? I'm already working on this, and plan to keep working on it whether elected or not. I visited One Hopeful Place and spoke at length with Donna (Morgan, interim director). Also, we have almost no sober living facilities that are accessible without jumping through a lot of hoops. I got sober in a regular house in the dusty valley of California with other drug addicts and alcoholics. It was nothing fancy. It was not expensive. I'd like to help get something like that off the ground here.  

How would you implement Priority 3? That's the easy part! I have a lot of knowledge here and a good sense of style. It's fun sharing this skill with people.

DEBRA RILEY

Debra Riley speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office:  Executive director, Okaloosa County Head Start

Why are you running for office? I have worked in the community for the past 20+ years advocating for families, quality of life, youth initiatives and environmental issues.  I would like to bring those same successes to the City of Fort Walton Beach

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I have already obtained successes in several communities advocating for the same programs that I would like to see become successful for the entire City of Fort Walton Beach.

What are your three top priorities? 1. Quality of life. 2. Economic growth. 3. Workforce affordable housing.

How would you implement Priority 1? By enhancing the partnership with local agencies like the Okaloosa County Health Department, Bridgeway, Homeless Alliance, Elder Services, City of Fort Walton Beach Department of Parks & Recreation, Garden Clubs and more to benefit the residents of the City of Fort Walton Beach.

Elderly Services — Advocate enhanced quality of life for seniors through the implementation of more health and wellness programs. Forge a strong partnership and/or collaboration between Okaloosa Elderly Services, local public health department, and senior home care agencies to educate seniors on how to manage behaviors, preventive care and health management, and home-proof safety environment.

Youth Initiatives — Advocate for our children to have access to free and/or reduced membership costs to the city’s recreation center. Eliminate fees for children meeting the poverty guidelines and offset lost revenue by increasing community partnering between local, state, and federal grant funding.

Environmental — Increase green space to provide hiking and biking trails within the city limits.

How would you implement Priority 2? By enhancing the partnership with local agencies like One Okaloosa EDC, which serves as the community’s lead economic development organization and the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, with the focus of a business-friendly community.

Become more business friendly by providing resources for small business owners to lower and simplify taxes.

Form partnerships to provide access to secure funding for small and minority businesses.

Form health care and retirement alliances to provide owners with much needed benefits.

How would you implement Priority 3? Establish partnerships between state and federal government and local builders/developers to build workforce housing that is affordable for middle income families through opportunity and empowerment zones, Brownfield designations, etc.

Establish first-time homebuyer programs within the city through collaborations with growth management and state and federal entities.

Strengthening Okaloosa County Growth Management Housing Programs.

Form stronger ties with organizations such as the Building Industry Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties, Inc. (BIA) a professional organization of builders, developers and associates affiliated with the Florida Home Builders Association and the National Association of Home Builders.

Form partnerships with the Florida Housing Coalition that provides professional consultation services through training and technical assistance on housing and related issues; supports community-based partnerships in leveraging resources; and advocates for policies, programs and use of funding resources that maximize the availability and improve the quality of housing in Florida.

Establish partnerships with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (Florida Housing), which was created by the state Legislature 40 years ago to assist in providing a range of affordable housing opportunities for residents that help make Florida communities great places in which to live, work and do business.

BRAD ROEHRIG

Brad Roehrig speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Chief cyber security engineer (DoD) and Realtor

Why are you running for office? To bring Fort Walton Beach up to the 21st century and spearhead a “City of the Future” initiative. I believe the future of FWB will be through business expansion and not heavy taxing. FWB is positioned for substantial business growth but the right City Council member is required to ensure decisions are in the best interest of constituents/business growth.

My direct leadership experience is garnered directly from 20 years in the Air Force and four combat tours to Afghanistan/Iraq. I have an extensive track record of solving complex problems and seeing large initiatives through. Likewise, I have experience with massive DoD budgets and ensuring maximum efficiency in how our taxpayer dollars are spent.

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I have a heart for serving people and will always place their best interests first in all my decisions. I am a proactive leader with a wide breadth of experience and vision for where FWB can be in the next 10 years. I will strive to repair the breach of trust in city leadership and expect to be held accountable for my decisions. I will go above & beyond to protect constituents/businesses from harmful City Council decisions and will get out from behind the podium to bring businesses to FWB.

What are your three top priorities? Rapid business growth for FWB. Communicating better with constituents. Expanded use of Eglin AFB property.

How would you implement Priority 1? I personally plan to create a task force of business leaders to develop a recruitment strategy and streamline the process for bringing medium/large business owners to our area. I believe the industrial park is a prime location for growth and can bring high-paying jobs to the FWB area. The proper outreach is essential to attracting and supporting these incoming business owners with no strings attached. Likewise, the recruitment of new small business owners is of the utmost importance and will be critical to our long-term growth. I plan to leverage the existing Chamber of Commerce efforts and devote my personal time in championing efforts to assist new entrepreneurs achieve their dream.

How would you implement Priority 2? I would employ a cellphone app that tracks via a dashboard all the important items the City Council voted on and relevant information to ensure they are kept in the loop. This app will track voting records and will ensure constituents are aware what is approaching for the council to vote on. It is imperative to provide constituents a quick snapshot for awareness while respecting their limited time due to work/life commitments. Likewise, this app will provide a portal to voice your concerns directly to me and provide for an expedient response to issues. A continuous concern that I hear from citizens is that council members fail to respond to their concerns. I plan to remedy that by working together with you on a solution.

How would you implement Priority 3? In close coordination with Eglin leadership and national leadership, I would like to pursue modification/leasing of government property only for the use of morale activities that benefit our military community and local FWB citizens. One proposal is to pursue a Topgolf®️ facility to attract new business revenue and re-energize our local golf course. The other proposal is to use government property for an asphalt running trail that provides a safe exercise venue for our local residents and honors our local heroes.

MICHAEL ROJAS

Michael Rojas speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Realtor, current member of Fort Walton Beach Code Enforcement Board

Why are you running for office? Because I love Fort Walton Beach and I would like to help the citizens of this city hold on to the deep roots and history that have made this city such a great place to live while at the same time positioning Fort Walton Beach to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities to attract more residents and tourists to our area. I want Fort Walton Beach to be the premier destination on the Emerald Coast.

What makes you stand out from your opponents? (No response)

What are your three top priorities? 1. Workforce housing. 2. Jobs to attract more young professionals to our area. 2. Improve the traffic and parking issues in our area.

How would you implement Priority 1? I would meet with governments in other areas that have implemented successful workforce housing initiatives that are working to see what we could duplicate here. Some possibilities would be tax incentives and reducing impact fees for builders.

How would you implement Priority 2? Partnering with businesses to make it more attractive for the businesses to open or expand their offices here.  

How would you implement Priority 3? Work with the city government to see the downtown master plan and the around the mound plan become a reality.

DAVID SCHMIDT 

David Schmidt speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: School principal, 2017-2021 Fort Walton Beach City Council 

Why are you running for office?  To be a true representative by the People, for the People.

Have you previously held an elected office? If so, when and where? 2017-2021 Fort Walton Beach City Council 

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I have a voting record that supports fiscal responsibility, fighting to get out of debt, smart growth and protecting our residents, businesses, schools and churches.

What are your three top priorities? 1. Improve local education. 2. Protect schools and churches. 3. Be the best neighbor with the military.

How would you implement Priority 1? As your councilman, I worked with all stakeholders to have a new elementary and middle school built in Fort Walton Beach to improve educational opportunities. I will continue to work with our staff and other education stakeholders.

How would you implement Priority 2? As your councilman, I have opposed, through casting a "No" vote on any ordinance that has the opportunity to add a tax or fee to your homes, schools and churches in Fort Walton Beach. 

How would you implement Priority 3? As your councilman, we are blessed to see the increase in our higher skilled jobs in organizations like HSU Educational Foundation that prepares our current and future workforce in higher skilled and higher paying jobs that support our military missions. I will continue to work with our youth, students, families and businesses to continue to be a great partner with our military so that we continue to expose more opportunities for higher-aying jobs that will make an impact today and for future generations.

TRAVIS SMITH

Travis Smith speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Auto dealer

Why are you running for office? I am running for office because I believe there is a disconnect between what our current council thinks the citizens want and what the citizens actually want.

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I think what makes me stand out from the rest of my opponents is my business experience. I am running two of my family's businesses that have been in Fort Walton Beach for over 44 years: Gary Smith Honda and Tim Smith Acura. Car dealerships and city government are uniquely similar in the way they are set up and run.

What are your three top priorities? 1. Regaining citizen trust. 2. Create a more fiscally responsible government. 3. Move the city forward!

How would you implement Priority 1? I believe the way you do that is by encouraging engagement and communication between the two while having the utmost amount of transparency.

How would you implement Priority 2? Our budget has grown almost 50% in the last eight years. I think it's important to treat the public money as if it were your own, thoroughly vetting every recommendation to make sure you're spending the money in a way that's responsible, transparent and in the best interest of the citizens.

How would you implement Priority 3? The next eight years are going to be very pivotal for the growth of the city, with the Brooks Bridge project finally coming to fruition and continuing to push the "Around-the-Mound" so we can finally create a welcoming atmosphere to our downtown area.

GARETH STEARNS

Gareth Stearns speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

No response provided.

SONYA VAZQUEZ

Sonya Vazquez speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

No response provided.

T. PAYNE WALKER

T Payne Walker speaks during a candidate forum for the upcoming Fort Walton Beach council election in March. Twelve candidates are vying for three seats.

Occupation/prior public office: Real estate broker, Okaloosa County Board of Adjustment

Why are you running for office? The current City Council (6-1) refused time and time again to listen to the will of the people and with the help of the city attorney and mayor broke their own rules in silencing citizens at City Council meetings. None of them stood up to protect and defend citizens. 

What makes you stand out from your opponents? I believe I stand out as I’ve focused my attention on citizens rights to be heard and transparency in government as fundamental elements in good governance. 

What are your three top priorities? 1. Civic engagement. 2. Transparency in government. 3. Government of the people, for the people and by the people. 

How would you implement Priority 1? Encourage and adopt rules that prioritizes citizen engagement at City Hall and in community forums with the goal of nobody in the community would not know what the city was up to, planning and doing. Further develop and implement civic engagement priorities outlined in the current strategic plan. 

How would you implement Priority 2? I’d be the representative known for giving every motion a second. For far too long motions have not received a second, thus preventing public transparent discussions among our representatives. And for far too long when seconds were given, little to no discussion was had then the vote was taken. We deserve to know how and why our representatives came to their decisions to vote one way or the other. We may agree or disagree.

We the people benefit when there’s good and vigorous public debate and discussion. Decisions made behind closed doors are not acceptable. Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant.  

I’d focus my attention on developing and implementing the City Strategic Plan as an open book of government priorities and activities. It would be what everyone looked to when they want to know what’s going on and on the horizon. No more requests for appropriations for major projects without citizen awareness campaigns and opportunities for their input in advance.

How would you implement Priority 3? I’d focus my attention on recognizing and acting in accordance with the understanding I am a representative of the will of the people. Even if I personally believe something is a good idea/policy if when it comes to the City Council for consideration and an overwhelming majority shows up in opposition to it I’ll listen to their concerns and would have to reconsider after hearing from them. I’d seek community input long before it came before council for consideration.

I will never tell citizens City Council meetings are not the place for questions as our current mayor told us for over 1.5 years. I’ll encourage questions and maneuver so they have as much time as they need to speak and engage with their representatives.