By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge voters have plenty of contrasts to consider as they prepare to elect two commissioners in the March 9 municipal election.
In Mayor Kristine de Haseth and former Mayor Geoff Pugh, voters have two of the most experienced and recognizable figures in town.
De Haseth has served as mayor for the past year, after two years as a commissioner. Beyond that, she is widely known as executive director of the Florida Coalition for Preservation with a long record of activism along the coast.
Pugh is one of the most experienced public servants in the town’s history. He served six years as mayor (2012-2018), had 15 years overall on the commission and before that served on town advisory boards.
Two political newcomers are at the other end of the experience spectrum. Both Carolyn Cassidy and John Kramer are making their first runs for office.
Cassidy, a real estate agent, has an engineering degree from Cornell University and a record of activism in local politics back in New York.
Kramer has 45 years’ experience as a corporate CFO, including with the U.S. Department of Transportation. He spent 20 years at Philip Morris International, rising to the rank of vice president.
Three of the candidates — Pugh, Cassidy and Kramer — share a common issue: They believe the commission has overreached in recent years, passing too many ordinances and meddling too much with homeowners’ individual rights.
“In the last few years, we’ve created way too many ordinances that are actually hampering our ability to increase our property values,” Pugh said during the town’s virtual candidates’ forum on Feb. 11.
He said that too often new ordinances “don’t tell you what you can do but tell you what you can’t do.”
Cassidy agreed: “The addition of so many ordinances has made it extremely onerous for homeowners. … We have to respect individual property rights.”
Pugh has endorsed Cassidy.
Kramer said the commission has spent too much time mandating rules on trees and synthetic turf laws and too little time dealing with finances.
“This election should not be a popularity contest, beautification project or just support a few residents,” Kramer said. “It is about who has the best financial planning and infrastructure background to protect and increase the values of our homes and the town we live in.”
De Haseth, the lone incumbent in the field, defended the commission’s record since she came aboard in 2018.
She said recent ordinances were passed to preserve Ocean Ridge’s character and will do that. Property values are climbing, she said.
De Haseth pointed to a five-year comprehensive plan she helped develop as evidence of serious work and fiscal responsibility. She cited her record as mayor during the past year and how engaging with outside communities and officials has brought COVID-19 testing to residents and made them safer.
“This year was a little bit off because of the pandemic,” de Haseth said of a 2020-21 budget that required dipping into reserves to balance. “But we’ve never used our reserve fund as a slush fund or anything like that.”
All four candidates agreed the town should keep its Police Department and not outsource services to larger agencies. All four agreed that septic-to-sewer conversion, which could cost $30 million or more, looms as a huge issue. But there wasn’t much discussion about what action the town should take now to prepare.
There was wide agreement that the commission should work harder at communicating with residents.
Candidates pointed to the dispute in December over closure of public beach access to allow seawall repair.
“It’s quite clear to me that this commission, at the direction of the mayor, does not value voices of residents,” Cassidy said.
Kramer said “it’s an online world” and the town should improve its access on the internet and make government “more user friendly.”
Pugh said the commission should work on welcoming residents’ participation. “Some of the Town Commission meetings have gotten intimidating,” he said.
Despite some glitches and the pandemic, de Haseth said, her work on the commission has Ocean Ridge well-positioned.
“The town is on a positive track,” she said during the forum, “and I would like to continue to do hard work for you.”
Commissioners serve three-year terms. The top two vote-getters will win the at-large seats. The commission appoints the next mayor after the election.