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City Council candidates speak out: policing, finances, LGBTQ rights, racism and more

Claire Heddles
Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Nick Howland attended their first public, in-person debate at Jacksonville's River Club on Friday, Feb 18, 2022.

Tuesday is Election Day in the Jacksonville City Council race to fill the vacant at-large group 3 seat.

Going into election day, about twice as many people have voted early in this election than voted early during December’s special election, which narrowed the field from four candidates to two: Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Nick Howland.

Both candidates made their pitch to voters at their first public debate, hosted by the Tiger Bay Club, on Friday.

Here's what the candidates' had to say, in their own words. Some answers have been condensed for clarity.

On police pensions

HOWLAND: "We need to always prioritize our our first responders and our essential first line workers, always. We know right now that we're three to 400 officers short of where we need to be to keep our streets in our neighborhood safe."

POLSON: "I would want a lot more information as to why we can't have them have be a part of the state pension plan. I think that feels really equitable and will go a long way to making sure that folks want to come and work here."

HOWLAND: "The only thing I'll add was that pension plan was also approved by the Fraternal Order of Police, as far as I understand."

POLSON: "I'm sure there some sort of a deal that was worked out, I'm just not sure that it's really working for the men and women in blue right now."

On mental health co-responders

HOWLAND: "I don't oppose the sheriff's co-responder program at all. I oppose shifting money from police budgets to the co-responder program ... Just like my military experience, if I'm on an OP, I don't want to have someone who's not as highly trained as I am on that operation because then I've got to not only worry about taking the objective, but also the people along with me. Same thing with the police, so there's very narrow specific rules of engagement that they use these mental health co-responders."

"My opponent's plan would redirect money to expand the mental health program to one mental health responder per district per shift that's above and beyond what's in the budget right now."

POLSON: "This is political doublespeak. Mr. Howland is right, that that money is from the Department of Justice grant, and it's working. And the police are talking about how it's working. It is saving lives. It is preventing people from being put in jail who belong in a hospital or treatment, and that makes sense. That makes good common sense."

"If a program is working, don't you think there's probably some more funding out there to go and find it? This is part of the narrative, which is that I'm 'for defunding the police.' I have never, ever said that I would take money out of the existing budget — as if one person has that power. It's ludicrous."

On campaign finance

POLSON: "About 56% of the money that we have spent on this campaign is my money. It's all there in our public documents, you can read it, and then the rest of the money was from donors, 97% of whom are in Jacksonville, a few that are outside."

"When you run for office, what you do is you have to raise a lot of money, unfortunately. I would love to see some limits on that. But you reach out to your friends and family, and I have friends and families and colleagues all across this country, and they gave me money when I reached out and said that I was going to run for the seat. We went from zero to 100 overnight, and so I knew that we were going to put some of resources in this. This seat is important, my message is important, my platform is important. We use that money to both promote that, but also engage with people all across the city."

HOWLAND: "That's one thing that Tracye and I agree on — you have to raise a lot of money to run a campaign like this, in a sprint like we're in right now. Almost all my money is from individuals, companies and other groups, and we've had to raise all the way up to the last minute because we're expecting a very low turnout in this race and we need to get the word out to drive people to the polls."

POLSON: "We all know, if you read the finance reports, Mr. Howland has dark money. What that means is he's accepted a lot of money from what we call PACs, political committees that go to the same person and the same address. He's also funded by developers and real estate lobbyists and people who will have business before the City Council, and that is something that voters need to know and understand."

HOWLAND: "There's nothing dark about that money. You can look up every single PAC that contributed to my campaign and find out who contributed to those PACS. That's Florida Sunshine Law, that's Florida election law, all that is traceable. The reason that so many folks from so many diverse interests have donated to my campaign is because they believe in my message. That message is strong support for public safety, more jobs and a strategic plan for growth so we can make Jacksonville one of the great American cities."

More information on dark money and the financing of this council race is available from WJCT News.

On race and racism

POLSON: "We've been having town halls and meeting people where they are, and I've been talking about race. And I don't think in 2022, especially after the last couple of years in particular, but really the last 400, that you cannot think about the impact of slavery, institutionalized racism, redlining, the inequity. I mean I could go on and on. And so we have been talking about that."

"After the murder of George Floyd, I was out at many protests here in Jacksonville, but as a peacekeeper, working alongside JSO, and have had so many conversations, both with people of color, but also a lot of white people who honestly have come to me and said, 'How can you talk about this as a white person?' And my response is, if we're not talking about it as white people, then we're part of the problem."

HOWLAND: "There are racists in our country, there are racists in our institution, but that doesn't mean our institutions are racist and that doesn't mean we live in a racist nation. One of the issues we have is inequality of opportunity, not outcome. That's not America, but inequality of opportunity, and we should always look to rectify those inequalities of opportunity."

"To me the way to solve race relations in Jacksonville is threefold. It's reduced street violence; it's invest in infrastructure; and it's improved educational opportunities in the neighborhoods that need it. Those are the three areas that I think we will implement to improve race relations, and that's fundamental to my platform."

On Duval Schools' proposed 1% property tax

HOWLAND: "I don't think legislation has been proposed on that 1-mill increase, so I can't possibly weigh in on whether I would support or not."

"I will immediately say that there's nothing more fundamentally important than improving education for our children and teachers. [They] deserve all the credit in the world for delivering that education to our children. So I would look at ways while on City Council to make sure as I just stated in the last question, that we provide top quality education to every child in Duval County."

POLSON: "The South and Florida have a long history of opposing integration, and you see this in policy and you see it in funding. And so, the chickens have come home to roost in terms of the attack on public education, even what is happening in the Legislature right now."

"My understanding is that this request from Diana Greene, the superintendent, is also wanting it to be voted on by the citizens, which again, I think makes a lot of sense. This is probably an area where Mr. Holland and I are in agreement, which is, you know, I went to public schools, all my kids went to public schools, and they're important. And we know what this looks like. We know where the inequity is in the city regarding the public education."

On underperforming schools

HOWLAND: "There is inequity in the city and particularly on the schools that have failed for years in the Northwest part of our city. So I'm really thrilled by some of the educational option improvement opportunities we're seeing right now with the IDEA schools going up in certain key locations, with the performance of the KIPP schools, excited about education in Duval County. I think we're moving in the right direction."

POLSON: "I would say that part of the reason for some of those underperforming schools is when you over the last 40, 50 years, underfund them. I mean, you all can look this up, there are court cases and and legal documents about the attempts to refuse and resist integration and giving folks — children — the resources they need to learn."

On LGTBQ rights and Jacksonville's Human Rights Ordinance

HOWLAND: "I would have voted for the HRO and the most recent recommendation, as did the City Council. I would fight any efforts at discrimination for anything — age, gender, race, sexual orientation. There's no room for discrimination in our city, our state or our country.

POLSON: "Tommy Hazouri was a champion for the HRO, and that's part of his legacy. We rolled out, a couple of weeks ago, the most comprehensive LGBTQ platform in the history of Jacksonville."

"It's something that is important, to Nick's point about discrimination, but really uplifting a part of our community that has felt very disenfranchised, marginalized and literally attacked, and sometimes people die because of their sexual orientation. I spoke out in favor of it when the most recent glitch happened, and I would continue to advocate for anything that is in that space, but more importantly to fight hard against anything to try to attack it."

HOWLAND: "The only thing I would add is I think our HRO bill, which went through two iterations and then went through significant debate on the second iteration, came out in a reasonable way that's appropriate for our city. It's a little bit different than some of the passages you see in North Carolina and things like that. We're not as restrictive as far as having, you know, folks be able to choose whatever bathroom we want to go into, which could endanger some folks. So I'm pleased with where we are. I'm happy with the HRO law as written."

POLSON: "There's absolutely no proof that people who identify as LGBTQ have anything to do with what bathrooms people use. That's a falsehood. It's another example of discrimination and ignorance, and I saw a lot of that when we were listening to public comments, and it was stunning that there were people in the city who still believe that. So that would be something that I would be very vocal about."

On Confederate monuments

POLSON: "I'm on record in alignment with Mayor Curry, by the way, for taking down the Confederate monuments. And we're still waiting, by the way. He said that at a Black Lives Matter march more than two years, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he said Black lives matter. So we're waiting on that monument to come down."

HOWLAND: "I don't think, regarding monuments, that it's as easy as tearing them down or keeping them up. I believe we need to add to and put context around them. For me, the easiest way to repeat an ugly past is to delete in the past. So I would focus on City Council engaging in that process that we have a plan to develop, where we look at a comprehensive citywide plan on monuments, and I would focus on how we add to and contextualize the history."

POLSON: "So this is what I do every day in my work, which is talk about the past and understanding it so that we don't repeat it in the future. What we're talking about, though, is not burying anything; it's not removing it. We can never unerase or undo our 400-plus-year history with regards to slavery and human rights. That's part of the narrative that I don't agree with, and I think we can do both."

HOWLAND: "The only thing I would add is, you need to understand, and add to and contextualize history to make sure you don't repeat it. If you just climbed Mount Everest and you have survived oxygen deprivation and blizzard and a couple slips and falls to your near death and you're talking to your son about potentially him climbing Mount Everest, you're going to talk about what you did to overcome that."

On Howland ad alleging Polson wants to defund the police

POLSON: "Nick, you know that that ad is a lie. To have a police officer say to camera Tracye Polson attacks police is a blatant lie. You know it and I know it, and I'm telling each and every person here. This is why one of the reasons why people are disgusted and disengaged with politics."

"I am on record as being for supporting our law enforcement. I have talked about it from the lens of a mental health professional, and expanding the co-responder program. This is a program that is from Department of Justice funding, so this is not about defunding the police. In fact, City Council voted unanimously a couple of weeks ago to expand it even further."

HOWLAND: "Calling someone a liar comes hard to me because I like to do my own research to make sure I'm not wrong before I would do something like that. But it seems to come really easy to you, Tracye. In fact, I think college kids could probably build a drinking game around how many times you call me a liar during these debates and what have you."

"If you're calling me a liar, you're calling the sheriff a liar. You're calling the Fraternal Order of Police a liar. You're calling your own Safer Together report a liar. It says right here, 'When discussing defunding the police in this report we're discussing moving budget solutions around to help create solutions such as funding the co-responder program.'"

POLSON: "It's not my report. My name is not on that report. This report was done long before I got into this race. I have never called you a liar. I have said that your statements about me are lies. I don't name-call, and I want to be on record, once again, as saying this has already been debunked by the local news Channel 4 WJXT called it false. It is just untrue."

On climate change

POLSON: "Something that I learned during this campaign, we did a town hall on climate change and climate justice. On a really hot day in Jacksonville, the heat difference, the temperature difference, between Shands downtown and Ortega is more than 10 degrees. What this means is that we have people that are presenting at the emergency room at UF Shands for heatstroke and heat dehydration, and so this is a health equity issue as well as a climate change issue."

HOWLAND: "Obviously, green space helps reduce the heat. But in particular, if we look at environmental measures and environmental protection, I served on the Environmental Protection Board for eight years. I know a lot of the major issues that our city faces. Protecting the river is by far one of the most important things that we need to do from a city leadership perspective, particularly as we grow. I think environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive things."

POLSON: "I'm curious when you were served on the board, what exactly did you do to help mitigate heat?"

HOWLAND: "Heat was never an issue that came up during my years on the Environmental Protection Board."

All Duval voters are eligible to cast a ballot when polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Polls close at 7 p.m.