Panama City Beach Leaders To Take Office; Reopen Sand
Reopening the Panama City Beach sands is the first major decision facing the popular tourist town's newly elected leaders. At least three City Council members have expressed support for partially lifting the beach closure by the weekend.
Newly elected leaders in Panama City Beach take office, as the popular tourist town grapples with revenue losses and a decision to reopen its sandy shore amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Two political newcomers will be sworn into the City Council at Thursday morning’s meeting. First-time candidate Mark Sheldon won the election for mayor. Political newcomer Michael Jarman won the contested Ward 4 City Council seat (which opened after former Council member Hector Solis decided not to run again).
In the race for City Council Ward 2, incumbent Phil Chester barely held onto his seat, gaining 32 more votes than his opponent, Fred Broussard.
Two other Council members - Geoff McConnell and Paul Casto - were not up for reelection this year, and will continue to serve for the next two years.
At Thursday's council meeting, which will stream live on the city's website and Facebook page at 9 a.m. CST, elected leaders will vote on a gradual reopening of the city’s beach. At least three City Council members say they plan on supporting the measure.
Bay County leaders announced plans earlier this week to open county-owned beaches between 6 - 9 a.m. and 5 - 8 p.m., starting on Friday.
Sheldon won 57% of 3,372 ballots cast in the mayoral race. He defeated former City Council member Josie Strange by 478 votes.
“Before the pandemic, we had knocked on over 2,000 doors,” Sheldon said. He says he also called more than 2,000 voters and answered residents’ questions in a series of live Facebook videos called ‘Minute with Mark.’
He says he’d like to continue getting feedback from residents throughout his four-year term in office. Sheldon says he plans to push for citizens’ to have the ability to speak on each agenda item before the council discusses it, instead of designating a single period for public comments at each meeting.
This is Sheldon’s first time holding political office, but he’s no stranger to city government.
Until recently, he served as chairman of the city’s planning board, which reviews proposed development projects in the city.
“I’d like to see a one-year, a five-year and a ten-year plan,” he said. “There’s going to be growth, but we have to plan it out and do it strategically. We can’t just build, build, build.”
Sheldon also owns and operates PCB Entertainment, which has an ongoing contract with the city to promote two large music festivals - SandJam Fest and Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam - each year.
Before Sheldon can begin tackling long-term projects, including planning for a local hospital and developing a strategic vision, he says the council must address more pressing matters. For him, that’s deciding on how to reopen the beach.
“You open it a little bit, and then each week, you watch it - you watch the curve,” Sheldon said. “If it’s going level or down, then you can open it a little bit more, just a little bit. And do it week by week.”
A decline in customers for tourist-dependent businesses means less money flowing into the city.
The new City Council must figure out how to further offset those business tax revenue losses, Sheldon said. Recently, the city suspended all discretionary spending and hiring of most positions. “Those are the things that we’re going to have to do even more going forward,” he said.
New Ward 4 City Council Member
Michael Jarman won the race for the Ward 4 City Council member seat with 55% of the vote, defeating challenger Cherie Crim by 333 votes.
Jarman says he grew up in Panama City Beach, where he now helps his parents manage the family business, Brown Fire Protection. This is the first time he’ll hold political office. “This is all new for me,” he said.
While on the council, he says he wants to improve the city government’s relationship with citizens, opening communication and bringing respect back to City Hall. “The City Council has turned into somewhat of a hostile environment,” Jarman said. “I’d definitely like to change that.”
When it comes to reopening the beach, Jarman says he plans to support the measure.
But he wishes the county would’ve kept its beach closure in place through May 1 to give newly elected city officials time to speak with the county’s health department director and leaders at local hospitals before deciding on how to reopen the sand, Jarman said.
“That would’ve at least given us a week to accumulate that information to make a sound judgment,” he said. “I want that decision to be based on reliable information.”
Ward 2 City Council Member
Ward 2 City Council Member Phil Chester eked out a victory in his reelection bid against challenger Fred Broussard. Chester won 50.4% of 3,278 ballots cast, holding on to his seat with 32 more votes than his opponent.
Chester had been voting in favor of closing the beaches. But after the county decided to reopen its sandy shoreline, he said, it’s time for the city to do the same. The city and county share about 19 miles of coastline.
“If the county opens up theirs and we leave ours closed, it’s going to be a mess,” Chester said. “With ours opening up, I think we can spread out.”
For those who are concerned about catching or spreading coronavirus, Chester says they should stay home. “If they’re nervous about going to the beach, then don’t go the beach. But there are a lot of people who want to get out and exercise.”
This doesn’t mean the city is welcoming tourists, he said.
“I think this right here is going to be a stress relief for our citizens,” he said. “We’re not inviting everybody to come down for vacation. That’s not what this is about.”