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Leon County Commission candidates Paula DeBoles Johnson and David O'Keefe talk housing, development, Amazon

A black woman with braids and a bald white man with glasses stand side by side in front of a banner showing a radio tower
Lydell Rawls
WFSU Public Media
Candidates Paula DeBoles Johnson and David O'Keefe are vying to represent District 5 on the Leon County Commission.

Three-term Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier is leaving her District 5 seat to run for mayor. Now the race comes down to a run-off between Paula DeBoles Johnson, a county employee, and David O’Keefe, formerly the chief financial officer at WFSU, who gave up his job to run for office.

DeBoles Johnson and O’Keefe participated in a candidate forum Tuesday, sponsored by The League of Women Voters, the Tallahassee Democrat and WFSU. Their relationship is cordial and occasionally humorous. They often agree. For instance, both say the Amazon deal was good for the city thanks to the 1,000 jobs slated to come. But how would the candidates ensure that Amazon keeps its part of the deal, which earned the company $2.5 million in incentives?

“The notion of them not honoring their word is not one that sits right with me,” said DeBoles Johnson. “And none of our neighbors, frankly. So, one of the things that I would certainly push for is to ensure that they honor their agreement. We did business on the forefront, and we agreed to terms. We have contracts in place; they must honor them.”  

“I don’t think we needed to give them all $2.5 million of taxpayer grant money to get them here,” said O’Keefe. “Likely what they needed was an interstate-accessible location halfway between the major markets of Jacksonville and Pensacola. So. First, it’s good. I don’t think we negotiated strong enough, and that’s a trend in local government.”  

The moderators noted that local government is sometimes criticized as being more responsive to business and development interests than to ordinary citizens. Is this perception fair?

“This perception is fair. It’s an accurate reflection of how decisions have been made,” O’Keefe said. “I do want to make this point, though: We can’t expect developers to act in our best interests. That’s not their role. Their role is to invest and make money. Who we should be expecting is our elected officials. Those are who work for us, and those are the people who should be deciding yes, no and putting in policies and rules that protect our community.”

“I’m not sure at what point we started demonizing folks that employ so many people in our community and bring resources to our community,” said DeBoles Johnson. “I’m not sure what happened there. I will say this: Our leaders make the best choices for our people, but people have an opportunity to stand up and be heard.”

Here they discuss how to incentivize affordable housing:

“When we’re talking about affordability, I’d like to see more programs,” said DeBoles Johnson. “I’d like to see more down payment assistance programs. I’d like to see more support for people to have a pathway to home ownership. And not be indebted so far to where they can’t get a home and can’t maintain those homes.”

“We can’t continue to ignore rental housing affordability,” O’Keefe said. “It keeps us from keeping a workforce when kids graduate from college who may want to work here, but they can’t because they can’t afford rental on a salary. So how do we do that? We put up local grant money when needed or local grant incentives…”  

One thing DeBoles Johnson and O’Keefe definitely agree on: not disclosing their choices for mayor.

To see this and all the other candidate forums, go to wfsu.org.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.