By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach voters will have a chance in March to do something they’ve been unable to do for the past three municipal elections — pick people who will serve as town commissioners.
Since 2020, all of the candidates for the town posts have been unopposed, depriving residents of the ability to say who has input in important community decisions.
As a result, all five of this year’s commissioners have run at least once without opposition.
That’s about to change.
With the close of qualifying on Nov. 22, two candidates, including the incumbent, filed to run for a three-year commission seat and three candidates filed for an unexpired term ending in March 2024.
That seat become vacant when Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman decided to run for state representative and was elected last month.
Mayor Doug Hillman was elected for a second term without opposition, after a potential challenger decided not to file.
Those filing for office are a sitting commissioner, a member of a town advisory board and three newcomers to civic involvement in Highland Beach.
Don Peters, a former police officer and town official in Yorktown Heights, New York, is running for the three-year seat against incumbent John Shoemaker, a retired business executive and Army veteran.
The three candidates for the unexpired term are Margarita Chappelear, co-chair of the town’s Natural Resources Preservation Board; Judith Goldberg, an attorney, mediator and former town attorney in Patterson, New York; and Peter Kosovsky, a retired radiologist who also has a background in private land development.
Competition for the two commission seats is a good thing, say those involved in the inner workings of the town.
“I’m happy that people are taking an interest in local government,” said Commissioner Evalyn David, who was re-elected without opposition for a three-year term this year.
David, who faced opposition when she first ran in 2019, and others on the commission believe the increase in the number of people seeking office is a result of the town’s success in encouraging more civic engagement and in improving communication with residents.
“We try and get people involved,” said David, adding that there has been a push to encourage participation on town boards. “We need people coming up behind us.”
Gossett-Seidman, who was re-elected without opposition for the term beginning in 2021 after winning a contested race three years earlier, said that she believes the level of interest in town government is based in part by satisfaction with the town’s direction.
“People like saying they’re from Highland Beach,” she said. “They’re happy to be involved and they think they can do more.”
Gossett-Seidman also believes that because her former seat carries only a one-year term, it is attractive to candidates who want to get a feel for the job without a three-year commitment.
“It gives them a chance for a test drive,” she said.
Jack Halpern, president of the Committee to Save Highland Beach, a political action committee that keeps a close eye on town government, believes having multiple candidates for seats benefits the voters.
“We think there needs to be a choice,” he said.
Halpern believes efforts to improve awareness about the election, from both the town and his PAC, encouraged candidates to come forward.
He said his group sent out information about the election to the 2,500 addresses on its email list for the past two months.
“We’ve said, ‘The elections are coming, the elections are coming,’” he recalled.
Halpern said that a referendum last March, where four of five proposed charter changes failed to get voter approval, may also have led to increased involvement, adding that there was concern among many residents about what was perceived as the commission’s unwillingness to listen to concerns.
While the committee has spoken with some of the candidates who will be on the March 14 ballot, Halpern said it has made no decisions on endorsements.