Palm Beach Town Council incumbent Julie Araskog and challenger Rene Silvin squared off Thursday in a Candidates Debate for the Group 2 seat.
Sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association, the debate drew nearly 200 people to the Parish Hall at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea to hear the candidates speak about their views on issues impacting the town.
Civic Association Chairman and CEO Bob Wright welcomed everyone to the debate.
“The Civic Association does not endorse candidates in elections,” Mr. Wright said. “Instead, we sponsor programs like this one to help voters make their own informed decisions. We believe educated citizens are the heart and the soul of the democratic process.”
Ms. Araskog touted her experience on the council for the past two years and her credentials as an attorney. Mr. Silvin emphasized his business experience and his long-time ties to Palm Beach.
Undergrounding, the town’s beaches, the budget, traffic, the continuing exit of public safety employees for other departments and West Palm Beach development were among the topics discussed and moderated by retired WPTV Channel 5 news anchor Jim Sackett.
Mayor Gail Coniglio and Council President Danielle Moore (videos below), who were up for reelection and regained their seats unopposed, spoke briefly.
Both touched on the same issues that they feel need to be front and center, including competitive pay and benefits for employees (most notably in police and fire) and mitigating unbridled West Palm Beach development in the downtown area.
Ms. Araskog and Mr. Silvin shook hands before the debate.
Ms. Araskog holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Duke University, a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a law degree from Notre Dame.
Mr. Silvin holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and master’s degrees in finance and hospital administration from Cornell University. He is vice chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The debate began by Mr. Sackett asking both candidates to answer the three questions in three minutes.
Why are you running for this Town Council seat? What are your qualifications? Why should the voters elect you and not your opponent?
Ms. Araskog: I originally ran because I love our town and I felt I could make a difference and I do believe I’ve made a difference in the past two years for our residents. When I first came onto the Town Council, we had an unfunded liability problem, it’s $100 million now … We had a revolving door in our police and fire. This council has really taken care of this unfunded liability issue and should be at zero by 2030 or earlier …. For myself, it’s about preserving the quality of life for our town residents and to also find ways to generate revenue … I’m somebody who asks a lot of tough questions and some people find that uncomfortable. I do my homework. I research. I do everything I can to make sure that whatever decision I’m going to make is based on facts and is based on what’s best for our residents and for our town … I’m uniquely qualified because I not only have business sense, but I also have a law degree. I have a lot of experience with non-profits … I believe towns work very similarly. Sometimes, when we try to run it like a business, we fail. We see that with our police and fire.
Mr. Silvin: I am running because I want to add my leadership skills to your council … Throughout my career, I created a network of highly profitable acute care hospitals throughout the world. These American hospitals were the talk of the international hospital network. I oversaw over $2.5 billion of hospital construction while completing 30 hospitals for a Fortune 500 company. I not only built our network, but I was responsible for its profitability. By the end of the completion of the network, I employed 11,000 people and my company became known as the company in the industry to go to work for because I paid the best salaries, I offered the best retirement packages, and I knew that creating a workplace to allow staff to maximize their human potential was essential. I’ve been a chief operating officer. I’ve been a chief executive officer. I’ve been on governing boards. I understand how these various positions function. My opponent, while well meaning, does not understand these distinctions and therefore has not been able to govern effectively … This in turn has cost you a lot of money.
Mr. Sackett: What are the most important issues facing the town and how would you deal with them? (Up to two minutes to answer).
Mr. Silvin: We have four major issues as I see them. They are: the difficult attrition problems, ongoing coastal protection maintenance, the huge capital expense projects and the $100 million unfunded liability in our pensions. In 2012-13, our Town Council decided to cut salaries and benefits. Since then we lost 83 certified firefighters. In 2018, while my opponent has been in office, the attrition rate has escalated dramatically. Innovative coastal protection – we are eight years into a 10-year well thought out plan and we need to develop a new one. We are being watched nationally as to how to save a fragile barrier island. I’ve spent a lot of time with our public works director and shore protection director. Capital expense projects: undergrounding is now budgeted at $103 million. Our mission is to monitor that budget carefully so it doesn’t grow and to minimize disruption to the residents. Our town docks are budgeted at $20.5 million … the rec center was increased by $1.8 million in costs and the $100 million unfunded liability. I assure you I will address all of those things.
Ms. Araskog: Two years ago, I was chairwoman of public safety … We put a new town manager in and the first thing I did was go to him and say I’m so concerned about our police and fire. He put it on the first agenda, and we are getting the Evergreen Study. I met with our firefighters and police and Civic Association and Police Foundation and the town manager to figure out what it is we can do. … I’ve studied our competitors. We are ready. We are fast-tracking public safety to fix this retention issue … Undergrounding is an issue and shore protection. Undergrounding was passed before I was in office … We are now working very hard to get it on budget and be less disruptive and to do whatever we can to bring this on time and keep it safe.
Mr. Sackett: I want to allow each candidate to ask their opponent a question and the opponent will have two minutes to respond.
Ms. Araskog to Mr. Silvin: Some of my “no” votes that you have been relentlessly attacked have been in order to protect our quality of life … Would you have stood with me and the residents to vote “no” allowing the bars and restaurants to stay open to 3 a.m. or would you have been a “team player,” allowing the bars and restaurants to stay open to 3 a.m.?
Mr. Silvin: Our philosophies were not completely apart. In fact, there was significant overlap and I supported Julie (2 years ago). It is not in her philosophies that I was concerned. It was in the execution and the voting record. In my opinion, if you are 4-1, the outlying vote, 53 times in two years, it does not indicate that you are advancing your agenda. It indicates that you are not doing your job properly, and is not something that is commendable.
Mr. Silvin to Ms. Araskog: When you voted 4-1 against the Evergreen Study, what was so difficult about such an easy, clear-cut decision which was essential to our town to move forward on altering our salaries and benefits in stopping the attrition rate?
Ms. Araskog: You must not have listened to the whole meeting. We reversed that and it became a 5-0. We all voted for the Evergreen Study. … At first, I voted no and thought about it a little bit and then said, “Can we do a revote?” We have to do this study, but I had hoped to include an extra 33 (general) employees (in the study) … We have voted 903 times. I voted “no” 53 times 4-1. Some of those were bars being opened till 3 a.m. … I’m an attorney. I believe it’s very important to have an attorney on the council. … I’ve made over 260 motions that have gone through. Only 13 have not. I’ve been a leader. I’ve done what I think you need on this council to protect you, to protect your livelihood, and to protect your way of life in Palm Beach.
Mr. Sackett asked the candidates questions from audience members.
To Mr. Silvin: How do you propose to limit development in West Palm Beach?
Mr. Silvin: What I can do is to try and make sure this serious traffic problem will be addressed. That will require supporting the mayor because the mayor is already working with the authorities in West Palm Beach to regulate the traffic lights and working with the Coast Guard to regulate the bridges … Short of that, we are at the mercy of what their decisions are.
To Ms. Araskog: Did you support utility undergrounding and what is your evaluation of the project now?
Ms. Araskog: I was not on the council when it was initially passed … One of the reasons this was passed is we were having a fire a week in Palm Beach … The council had to make a hard choice. One of my “no” votes was to not break ground until we had AT&T and Comcast contracts done … There have been issues in phase one. It has not been easy.
To Ms. Araskog: What are the biggest threats to the quality of life we enjoy in Palm Beach?
Ms. Araskog: We have so much overdevelopment. I have fought to get information … so that neighbors will have a voice … We’re here to protect everyone’s property rights. We worked to make heavier restrictions on construction. We also worked on better hours. Another is flooding, sea level rise. We have a Woods Hole study telling us what we can do to fortify our town … to save our properties from sea level rise.
To Mr. Silvin: What is your position on the Port of Palm Beach expansion and the deepening and widening of the inlet?
Mr. Silvin: I am opposed to any widening of the inlet or expansion of the port. I feel expanding the port will severely hamper this town … I also think it has a disastrous ecological effect.
To Mr. Silvin: Do you believe Palm Beach is changing for the better or for the worse?
Mr. Silvin: We are changing for the better, but we have to do that very carefully and manage it. One thing I’ve done in this campaign is to speak to young people in the 40-year-old group. If we don’t accommodate young people coming into this town, my generation will die out and this island will be a museum, so we have to balance very carefully preserving our architectural and our historic history.
To Ms. Araskog: Is the town spending too much money? What should be done about it?
Ms. Araskog: I think the town was spending too much money, but we have a new town manager who has done all kinds of things. He has redone the way we purchase and sell equipment. We’re also not spending as much on other projects. I was against spending $4.6 million on a rec center … We could have built something for $1.1 million. However, we are going forward, and my job now is to make sure we market it … and make it successful.
See the video of the entire debate above.
Mayor Gail Coniglio [6:23]
Town Council President Danielle Moore [5:49]
Palm Beach election: Silvin, Araskog face off in final debate (Palm Beach Daily News)