Endorsements were key in Tuesday's Fort Walton Beach City Council race
FORT WALTON BEACH — Incumbency and endorsements proved key this year in deciding who among 12 candidates would sit on the City Council.
Nic Allegretto and David Schmidt, the only two incumbents in the crowded field, were both returned to office, but both also received key endorsements, albeit from two organizations with opposing views.
Allegretto was endorsed by the Fort Walton Beach Professional Firefighters Association, and Schmidt by the Fort Walton Beach Watch Group that has sued the city over its decision to impose a municipal fire assessment.
The third candidate elected, Travis Smith, also was supported by the Watch Group.
The divisive fire fee was a key issue in the City Council race. Passed by a 4-3 vote with both Allegretto and Schmidt opposed, the fee upped city taxes by $80 per residential unit, and assessed 7 cents per square foot for commercial properties and 2 cents per square foot for industrial/warehouse properties.
The funds were expected to generate $1.2 million over the course of a year and help reduce the city’s reliance on general fund revenue to pay for various Fire Department expenses.
Firefighters supported implementation of the fee.
Two other candidates supported by the firefighter's union, Jason Floyd and Sean Murphy, finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in Tuesday's balloting.
Gloria DeBerry and T. Payne Walker, each endorsed by the Watch Group, finished sixth and seventh, respectively.
Four of five candidates who received no endorsement — Gareth Stearns, Brad Roehrig, Michael Rojas and Sonya Vasquez — collected the fewest votes in the field.
Only one unendorsed candidate, Debra "Debi" Riley, made a strong showing in the race. She finished fourth, her 815 votes 65 shy of that of the incumbent Allegretto.
Riley said she spoke to the firefighters Union before the election, but she believed its decision to support Allegretto, Floyd and Murphy already had been made.
She also said that an endorsement from the group might have been enough to put her on the council.
"When you get a strong endorsement from a strong organization, it is an enhancement," Riley said. "Maybe if I had received an endorsement it would have enhanced my position and put me over the top."
Riley also benefited from significant financial support. Finance records on the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections website show she received more than $19,000 in contributions.
However, Riley said Thursday that the number appearing on the website is incorrect because of an accounting error and that her actual total collected was $12,242. That number still would put her contribution total as highest among the 12 candidates, slightly ahead of the incumbents Schmidt and Allegretto, who each raised more than $10,000.
Smith, who according to an unofficial final tally had 1,044 votes to finish second overall, said that his firm stance in opposition to the fire fee and ties to the Watch Group worked in his favor.
"I can't help but think that (anti-fire fee stance) had to have some part of my being elected," he said. "I never hid my feelings while I was running."
He said his mantra that he was running "to give a voice to the people" also helped his election chances.
"I don't think they've had that voice outside of David Schmidt," Smith said.
Schmidt, who has never shied from being the single dissenting vote on the seven-member City Council, led all candidates in Tuesday's balloting with 1,219 votes.
Smith said he and Schmidt have been "best friends for the majority of our lives." Although he was quick to add, "I can't say we'll agree on everything," he expects the two will be closely aligned on the council.
He said other council members will have to decide whether they want to ignore Schmidt and Smith as a voting minority or decide to work with them.
"They can say, 'We know what these guys are going out and saying, and they were the two highest vote getters, so maybe we should listen to what they have to say,' " he said.
Smith said his goal "at the end of the day" is for the entire council to work together for the good of the city.
"One thing I've learned being in the car business is how to negotiate," he said. "There are probably some things I'll need to choke down and support that I don't necessarily agree with, and others on the board will hopefully be willing to agree to some things they don't fully support. At the end of the day, we want to work together."
Bobby Anderson, president of the Fort Walton Beach Professional Firefighters Association, said Wednesday his organization was ready to set aside any differences exposed during the election campaign and work with the new council for the good of the city.
"I think our message, across the board, is all the same," he said. "The way they (Schmidt and Smith) delivered their message resonated with the community. ... I look forward to working with them, I think they will both do a great job."
One item that seems certain now to come before the new council, sworn in on April 1, is a call to set a date for a special election at which three proposed ordinance changes favored by the Watch Group will be considered by voters.
Watch Group spokesman Bob Lee said the organization recently turned in enough signed petitions to force the vote. Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux must validate the signatures on the petitions before balloting will be conducted.
The council would set the date for the special election, Lee said, and Schmidt now has a reliable second on the board to force discussion and a vote.
One of the items to be voted on would ask residents to establish an ordinance preventing the city from approving special assessments without first conducting a referendum.
The final unofficial vote tally for Tuesday's election was altered slightly when mail-in ballots were inadvertently turned in at the Shalimar Office of the Supervisor of Elections rather than its Crestview headquarters.
Final results were: Schmidt, 1,219; Smith, 1,044; Allegretto, 880; Riley, 815; Floyd, 732; DeBerry, 687; Walker, 638; Murphy, 531; Vazquez, 503; Stearns, 481; Roehrig 365; Rojas, 123.
Results will be finalized at a canvassing board meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
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