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Candidates for Leon County County Commission District 1 discuss poverty, crime and homelessness

A man in a blue suit sits next to a woman in a light-colored blouse and a man in a tan suit, and all have microphones in front of them.
Lydell Rawls
WFSU Public Media
Terrance Barber, Donna Cotterell and Bill Proctor are all vying for the Leon County Commission District 1 seat.

Poverty, homelessness and crime are pressing issues for district one in Leon County. The district encompasses the 32304 zip code, which is one of the poorest in the state. The people vying to represent the district on the county commission all have different ideas on how to address these long-standing concerns.

Bill Proctor, Donna Pearl Cottrell and Terrance Barber all want to get it right when it comes to reinvesting in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of the district, without displacing longtime residents. District one ranges from South City to Frenchtown to Thorpe Street, both Florida State and Florida A&M Universities are in the district too. Parts of the area are undergoing big changes with new apartments and business complexes coming in and in turn, there are growing concerns about rising rents. Cotterell believes the county should be looking to tiny homes and container housing as innovative ways to address overall affordability and supply issues.

“You can buy a container home or one of these, you know old trailer beds for $6,500. Imagine if you could, as a family, create a home for less than $10,000 on a footprint that may have been left by your family members. So there are solutions there are ways to work around using big developers,” she said during a Tuesday candidate forum hosted by WFSU Public Media, the League of Women Voters of Tallahassee and the Tallahassee Democrat.

For Barber, it all ties back to a bigger problem: poverty. Barber notes poverty is a cause of all other issues like homelessness and violent crime.

“I think that we have to start better training our workforce,” he said. “I think that we get inside of the County school system and implement programming where some of these young adults have other things to look forward to post-graduation than just simply college.”

Not every job requires a degree, and many local businesses have openings they cannot fill.

It's on the issue of violent crime where Proctor, the longtime Commissioner for the district, points to the work of Leon Sheriff Walt McNeil who is forming a council to address many of the causes of crime, like unemployment and mental health.

“And when you look at the jail population, a third of the jail population is on mental health treatment. So we have issues that we've ignored. And then COVID. Experts are saying that in the aftermath of COVID these mass shootings occurring across the nation, [this] behavior we've not seen…maybe we've got to go deeper and look into corrective steps that lead us out of COVID,” said Proctor.

While the candidates share similar beliefs about the big issues facing the district, they disagree on some of the recent major debates in the city and county, mainly the decision by the inter-governmental Blueprint agency to give FSU $27 million for stadium repairs and improvements. Proctor stands by his affirmative vote, and calls that project economic development.

“The vantage point that I look at is that 80% of Florida State’s football team [for the] last 20-30 years, is made up of African Americans. It’s economic development, and I find nothing wrong with investing in a program where the benefit of boys who otherwise may not have a chance at higher education, they get to come through Florida State,” he said.

Barber and Cottrell disagreed with that take. When asked whether Blueprint should be subject to an independent ethics board. Barber said “I think that ethics is a personal decision. I think that first and foremost, we need to be able to trust that the people we elect into these positions actually understand the difference between right and wrong.”

Cotterell described FSU’s request and Blueprint’s decision to grant it, “morally obscene, for a stadium to get luxury upgrades while the folks are in the same zip code that is the poorest zip code in the state are suffering.”

She suggested a fairer way would have been to give both FAMU and FSU $10 million for their projects, which is what FAMU received for its stadium mask.

Proctor and Barber declined to make an endorsement in the city mayoral race, while Cottrell declared her support for Whitfield Leland III. Proctor did say he would vote for Charlie Crist and the Democratic gubernatorial primary while Cotterell said she thinks “a woman should be in charge.”

Watch the forum, below:

Corrected: June 26, 2022 at 1:12 PM EDT
A previous sentence read that Donna Pearl Cotterell had endorsed Nikki Fried. Story has been edited to note Cotterell stated she believes a woman should be in charge but did not explicitly state support for Nikki Fried.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.