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Lynn Haven Voters Elect Jesse Nelson Mayor, Filling A Nearly Year-Long Vacancy

smiling man in dark suit and red tie
file photo
Panama City Pastor Jesse Nelson won the Lynn Haven mayoral special runoff election on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Panama City Pastor Jesse Nelson will become Lynn Haven's first mayor since former Mayor Margo Anderson's arrest and subsequent resignation nearly a year ago.

Panama City Pastor Jesse Nelson won Lynn Haven's mayoral race by a thin margin after Tuesday's special runoff election.

Nelson eked out a victory against fellow first-time candidate Ellyne Fields, winning by less than 30 votes. Fields had secured the most votes in April's special election, in which there were three candidates running. No candidate secured more than 50% — triggering a runoff election. After the polls closed on Tuesday evening, Nelson had secured 50.46% of the vote.

Shortly after his win, he described the moment as "exhilarating."

"I feel like I'm standing on a mountaintop and can see a great future for Lynn Haven," said Nelson, who's also senior pastor at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church.

Nelson's opponent, Ellyne Fields, had come under fire ahead of the runoff election after local news outlet WMBB shared an out-of-state arrest report during a debate between the two candidates a couple of weeks ago. Fields had been arrested in Spokane, Washington on domestic violence-related charges in 2017.

It's unclear whether Fields' past arrest factored into the election's outcome. Still, many residents have expressed reluctance when it comes to trusting the city's leadership after four former officials - including the previous mayor and city manager - were arrested on public corruption charges.

Nelson will become the town’s first mayor since Margo Anderson left office. She was arrested on public corruption charges in August and stepped down soon after that. The mayor has a vote on the city commission. Her seat has remained vacant since she resigned. Nelson is set to take office at the next city commission meeting on Tuesday, May 25. He will complete Anderson's four-year term before he's up for re-election in 2023.

An ongoing federal investigation into the town's dealings with local contractors and subsequent public outrage doesn't intimidate him, Nelson said. Leading a church in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael gave him conflict resolution skills, preparing him for this moment, he said.

"Those skills that I’ve gained as a leader over the years have prepared me to forge ahead and help us move forward together as a city.”

The city is still recovering from Hurricane Michael, with construction on a new City Hall and police department getting started in a few weeks.

Nelson says in addition to working on recovery, he supports prioritizing stormwater infrastructure projects that reduce neighborhood flooding and promoting small businesses.

Public trust was another issue highlighted in his campaign. Nelson says that requires more open communication and greater transparency. That's why he says he plans to hold regular town hall meetings while in office.

"The community can come out and talk with me, ask questions, give their suggestions, so we can address their concerns," Nelson said. "I believe communication is very key and vital for us restoring that public trust."

Two city commissioners' races were also decided in runoff elections Tuesday.

City Commissioner Judy Tinder kept her seat in the runoff, defeating her opponent Brian Gray by a wide margin. Tinder has often been the dissenting vote when the commission isn't in full agreement. She also frequently communicates residents' concerns at commission meetings.

Local resident Jamie Warrick won the seat previously occupied by Mayor Pro Tem Dan Russell, who decided not to run again. Russell was referenced in the federal grand jury indictments against former Mayor Margo Anderson and former City Attorney Adam Albritton.

The ongoing federal investigation — which arose after the Federal Emergency Management Agency alerted investigators to possible misuse of Hurricane Michael recovery funds — inspired Warrick to run. Concerned about his town, he's regularly attended city commission meetings, spending some of his free time filing public records requests and analyzing documents, Warrick told WFSU News in September. At that time, he had been digging into the city's latest audits, trying to determine where officials might've gone wrong with the city's handling of hurricane cleanup funds.

“I didn’t want to run," he said in September. "But I just feel like I need to run."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.