Only minutes prior to learning they had won election to the High Springs City Commission Tuesday night, Bob Barnas and Linda Clark Gestrin are engaged in conversation with a supporter.
HIGH SPRINGS – Two challengers beat the two incumbents in the High Springs City Commission election Tuesday night.
Linda Clark Gestrin and Bob Barnas received the two highest numbers of votes, overtaking current Mayor Larry Travis and Vice Mayor Byran Williams. Neither Gestrin nor Barnas have previously held political office.
Travis had not been defeated since his election in 2005. Williams has served on the commission for six years, though he briefly lost his seat in 2009.
While local resident Leda Carrero had said the election was a “cliff hanger” for the city, the final results were not close. Gestrin received 511 votes, and Barnas received 469. Williams earned 313 votes while Travis came in last with 276.
William Ross, a poll watcher, said the turnout was “better than most.” He attributed that to the tight race which was “very close and very contested.”
The election remained controversial up until the last minute, and beyond. At 7 p.m. when the polling location closed, officials locked both the public and poll watchers out of the High Springs Civic Center.
Citizens and poll watchers banged on the doors to the center, demanding they be let in. Joyce Hallman said she and the other poll watchers were supposed to be inside to watch the vote tallying.
“There’s nobody in there watching,” she said. “They could be doing anything. They could be tampering with the machines.”
Police officers spoke to the officials and escorted citizens into the building about eight minutes after the doors had been locked.
Williams, Barnas and Gestrin waited in the room with the public, speaking to supporters and carefully watching the tallying. Travis was not present for the final count.
Upon hearing the results, with a huge smile on her face, Gestrin hugged her husband. She said while she was excited and honored to be elected, there is little time to rest. The real work begins now.
“We need to assess where we’re at,” she said. “We need to re-evaluate the sewer project. We must bring economic development. We need a fresh, new direction.”
Barnas said his first priority is to find out what can be done about the sewage project. He said he wants to sit down with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Rural Development agency to discuss alternatives to get back the $1.6 million in funding that might be revoked.
High Springs staff members were informed in an Oct. 24 letter from the USDA that the agency planned to de-obligate grant funds approved in 2005 for the second and third phases of the city’s sewage system expansion. While the project was originally assessed at $10 million, it ended up costing closer to $8 million.
The city intended to use the extra funding to cover the costs of hooking up users to the system but failed to meet the five-year time limit placed on grant money.
Barnas said the commission needs to explore alternatives, including negotiating a joint venture with Alachua allowing High Springs to use pre-existing wastewater facilities.
Also on the ballot were six city charter amendments. All passed, leading to some significant changes in city policy.
From now on, commission candidates will have to run for specific seats. They also can no longer serve as contractual employees to the city in the year after their election.
City ordinances can now be proposed by citizens. An amendment passed giving them the authority to petition before the commission if they receive signatures from 50 voters.
The number of ballots tallied was 826, including absentee ballots and provisional votes. Due to four contested votes, the results will not be certified until Thursday at 5 p.m.
Interim City Manager Jenny Parham said the public is welcome to attend the meeting of the canvassing board and hear the official results.
The new commissioners will be sworn in on Nov. 17.
Local schoolteacher Billye Dowdy said before the election she went with a partner to pray at every entryway sign to High Springs, hoping for “a favorable outcome.”
“We prayed that God would show favor to this community and restore righteousness,” she said. “Righteousness, honesty, decency and wisdom. Just wisdom.”
Gestrin hopes that with her election, High Springs will be able to move forward economically. She said by finding common ground and working together, the town can do what needs to be done.
“There’s so much potential here,” she said. “I’m interested in handing off High Springs to future generations in the condition like it was given to us.”
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