OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief is challenged by Mark Brandel for the District 1 commission seat. On July 16, the two Republican candidates participated in the virtual forum hosted by the Okeechobee Economic Council.
“I’m a businessman,” said Brandel. “I look at things from a business perspective. I am a fiscal conservative. I value a well-thought-out plan.
“Until we improve our infrastructure here, it’s going to be difficult for us attract business to Okeechobee,” he said, noting most new businesses want broadband, which Okeechobee does not have. He said Okeechobee also needs more vocational training to improve the workforce.
“I’m proud to be a member of the board of county commissioners,” said David Hazellief. He said it takes all five commissioners working together to make progress in Okeechobee County. “We have continuously either maintained or reduced the millage (tax rate),” while making progress on county projects, he continued. “For 12 years the airport sat there with some mitigation issues and we were unable to get grants for hangears and runways and that type of thing. Working together we were able to solve that.” He said the county is cleaning up the industrial park and is in the process of filling it with tenants. “We have secured over $11 million in grants for Okeechobee,” he added.
The first question for the candidates was about the ethical use of social media by elected officials.
“Every elected official has the right and the duty to express their opinions in a good manner,” Hazellief said. “They absolutely have to be very careful not to step over the boundary and make it derogatory or hurtful to someone or hurtful to the community and the board that we work on.” He said currently there is no easy way to enforce that. “It’s not against the law to say something stupid, it’s just not very popular to do so.”
“Social media is a double-edged sword. It can certainly be effective in getting accurate information out to the public in a timely fashion,” said Brandel. “As elected officials we are held to a higher level of responsibility,” he continued. “We need to be very careful to justify the faith people have put in us.”
When you put something out online, you can’t take it back, he added.
The candidates were also asked about the greatest need within in Okeechobee County.
“We have some big issues with infrastructure. I think we have issues with education,” he said.
“I think we need broadband,” Brandel continued. “Everybody wants internet, and everybody wants unlimited internet.”
“Our greatest need in Okeechobee is to attract businesses so we have jobs to retain our youth,” Hazellief said. He said the current commission is working on that with the Economic Development Council. “We have a lot of good things going with that to try to bring jobs to our community.”
Another issue addressed was work by unlicensed contractors.
“We hired two additional code enforcement officers,” Hazellief said. He said they now have code enforcement officers working on weekends to catch some of the unlicensed activity because that is when a lot of the unlicensed work is done. He said it is the responsibility of the public to make sure they hire a licensed contractor to protect themselves. If consumers hired licensed contractors who pull permits, the county has ways to help if there is a problem with the work.
“We need to educate the consumer,” said Brandel, who serves on the Construction Industry Licensing Board. “If you hire an unlicensed contractor, you have no protection. If you hire a licensed contractor, we have a hammer, so to speak. You can come before our board and we have provisions to issue penalties or suspend permitting privileges.” He said people need to call the building department if they have any questions about whether work is permitted or not.
The permitting process and “red tape” required for a new business Okeechobee County was also questioned.
“I think we need to consider some flexibility in some of our regulations, whether it’s lot sizes or building size minimums,” said Brandel.
Hazellief said sometimes the problems are with state and federal permits. He said county staff and commissioners are lobbying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help Bass Pro get the permit needed for the Okee-Tantie project.
In response to a question about releasing nonviolent prisoners awaiting trial from the county jail due to the COVID-19 epidemic, Hazellief responded, “That happened at the very beginning of the COVID epidemic. The sheriff came to us and told us what he was doing with the judges and the prosecutors to release the nonviolent people and decrease the population. Yes, the jail still has a population problem because certain people can’t be discharged. But the sheriff went above and beyond to make sure these people could get out.
“The sheriff has done a very good job of maintaining the dignity of that jail to prevent the coronavirus,” he added.
Brandel said he is also in favor of releasing nonviolent prisoners who are awaiting trial to allow more space for social distancing and to reduce the risk for older and high-risk individuals. “I would encourage them to use ankle bracelets for tracking,” he said.
Hazellief and Brandel will be on the ballot in the August primary. They are both Republicans. Because there are no candidates from other parties in this race, the District 1 primary will be an open primary, allowing all voters to participate. In this race, the primary will decide the election.
Links to the videos from the forum are available on the Lake Okeechobee News page on Facebook.