County Commission District 5: David O’Keefe

1) Interests and Reasons for Running

A) Tell us a little about yourself, where you live, and your involvement in your neighborhood (issues impacting your neighborhood).

I’ve lived in Tallahassee since 2003, and in Old Town 2014.  I’m a member of our neighborhood association and our neighborhood crime watch group. One year ago, my wife and I were among some of the neighborhood residents who opposed the neighborhood association’s stand against the location of the City Walk Homeless Shelter on Mahan Drive.

B) What event(s) led you to run for elected office?

Running for office was not a goal I had. My background is as a CPA. I did apply to be on the Ethics Board and was alarmed at the way appointments were made.  I expected there to be an interview process of some sort, but the decision to appoint someone to the Board was made at the end of a City Commission meeting without discussion. I felt like it was not done the way it should be.

Also, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work on local and national campaigns, door-knocking, phone calling. I volunteered with a national effort to get money out of politics through a constitutional amendment. In watching how politics works, in 2018, there was a local candidate who was elected having no political background and again in 2020, there was a local candidate who had a different philosophy—more people focused—who won and I began to think that it wasn’t necessary to run a “traditional” fundraising campaign and have large TV ad budgets.  I believe people in Tallahassee are paying attention and they will vote. So, I took about a year to prepare for running for office.  If elected, this will be my full-time job. 

I’ve watched Commissioners who I thought would make the right call, especially on development related issues and on economic development things, who haven’t voted the way I would have and have not voted in the way their constituents clearly wanted. I think this year is a pivotal one.

2) Comprehensive Plan Update Process

A) Are you familiar with the comprehensive planning process and its role in guiding growth and development, and protecting neighborhoods?

I’m not familiar with the exact process, but I am familiar with its role in deciding how we grow and in what can grow where and what happens with the city services area.  Also, I’m aware that we’re going through an update to the Comp Plan, which is another reason I think this is a pivotal year for our community.

B) What role should citizens have in deciding on growth and development policies for our community?

To start, citizens need a larger role. An observation I have is that the lack of public participation is the reason we are having six or seven hour long Commission meetings, where citizens are lining up to speak in opposition to an issue in three minute increments. Citizens feel like they are not being heard and often feel like they are speaking to a brick wall. Once we have elected Commissioners who are listening to people’s concerns, they will trust Commissioners to vote in their interest. Our public participation process is not adequate and no matter what the vehicle for participation is, people on the Commission are not listening to their constituents.

I think the citizens’ role in things like changes to the Comp Plan, updates, zoning, and development changes we need to make it easy for citizens to comment before the vote comes up.  What that looks like to me is that in addition to the regular Commission meetings, we need advocacy groups that may directly communicate with Commissioners, and I think we need to hold meetings via Zoom and in person at different times, locations and different days of the week to get input from people who are not able to attend Commission meetings on a Wednesday afternoon. We are not getting everyone’s input. We are only getting input from people who are able to attend the Commission meeting and those groups who advocate for those who can’t attend. We need much more input from our citizens.  We should have actual outreach meetings that make it convenient and easy for a new group of people who do not typically get to be heard and express their opinions on what they want to see on things like the changes to the Comp Plan and development. 

It would make for a longer process, but this is something we should be doing well before Commission meetings.

From my observations, it seems pretty clear where people want to see development go.  We don’t want large, sprawling luxury developments that are without adequate environmental impact studies, traffic studies, or adequate infrastructure laid out at the front end, nor do we want commercial strip malls everywhere.  I think we want urban infill that is smart development that fits the neighborhood that it is going into.  One of the things we have that other cities don’t is neighborhood character.  We do have some NIMBY (not in my backyard) reactions from citizens who see what has been done in other neighborhoods and don’t want to see that happen in theirs. 

If we build good communication and trust, we can move forward to develop the things we need like affordable housing—both home ownership and rental—in ways they fit into the neighborhood they are going into.  We can’t just not build things.  We have to build things that neighborhoods want.  Sometimes this goes against property values, but we can’t, for example, build new apartments because someone is afraid that it is going to negatively affect their property value.  It’s a matter of doing it in a way that fits and where everyone has input. 

3) Process Used to Decide on the Use of Public Properties

What role should citizens and neighborhoods have in deciding on the use of public properties and how do you think and how do you think that should work, for example in the development of the Northwood Mall site?

I have liked that a handful of citizen engagement events have been held over the past few months on the Northwood Mall property. They may have started these after it was decided by the City that the property would be the new location for the police department.  My issue is that we need to use public property to fill gaps that we have.  I understand that the City decided that the current police facility is inadequate.  There are many other unfilled gaps in our community, for example we don’t have community centers, affordable child care or affordable housing, or assisted living for seniors. Wherever we have public buildings or property we need to think about community needs that are not being filled by the private market.  That’s where we should be using our resources to fill the gap, both with our economic development dollars and with public property—buildings. 

I am a person who prioritizes.  I know we need a new police station, but it may not be the highest and best use of our resources. I think we first need to meet our community’s basic needs.  I don’t think a new police station should be prioritized above things like community centers for our youth, or affordable child care.  We could take, for example, an unused County building, retrofit it into a state of the art child care facility that rents for $1 per year and is leased to an approved child care vendor. This is an example where it becomes an investment.

4) Growth and Development Decisions

A) ATN believes that growth and development decisions are key to making urban neighborhoods walkable, bikeable, and livable. Do you agree? If so, what specifically would you propose to implement these concepts?  

I agree we need to make our neighborhoods more bikeable and walkable. As the Tallahassee/Leon county area develops, we see a big increase in traffic. I think the answer is not building bigger roads. We have to encourage other means of transportation as Tallahassee is not a city that is truly accessible for folks who do not drive vehicles.  It’s not only traffic, but we have to drastically cut down on our carbon usage. Multi-modal transportation, shared and public transportation are some of the most effective ways to do this.

Whenever you have walkable, bikeable open spaces, you have a stronger and more resilient community which greatly improves and positively impacts a community’s sense of place and a stronger community.  Every problem that we have, we can solve by coming together as a community. 

Even though the City funds the public bus system, it doesn’t mean that the County is uninvolved. I think investment in public transportation should be one of our biggest priorities and will be a good return on our investment.  

Right now, we have a city that is deadly to walk and bike in. Yet, we are not investing in good lighting and sidewalks. I ride a bike, but unfortunately it is not safe.  To encourage bike use, we have to make it safe. This can be done with separated bike lanes, expanding our bus service beyond Capital Circle, and other things.  We need to focus on this.

B) In your opinion, has the Commission done enough to equitably share tax dollars and guide growth and prosperity generally, and more specifically, to implement the Southern Action Plan? What else should we do to ensure growth is equitable and benefits all of our citizens?  

I am not specifically aware of the Southern Action Plan. I do know that we need to make sure the southern part of Leon County is getting an equitable share of resources.  My opinion is that when it comes to resources, as a City and County we have abandoned the south side in comparison to any other area. While I am running for the seat in District 5, I am running to serve all people in Leon County.  For decades, we have neglected to give the southside the resources and when we have given resources, we have done so in a way that the people downtown want and not necessarily what people in the community on the southside want. 

Changing this involves not only fulfilling the commitments for all the projects that have been on the list for a long time, with projects often getting pushed further and further down the list, but we need to give more resources to make up for our past failures to provide resources.  If we have been ignoring areas, we can’t just say, ‘well, now you’re equal.” We have to give more resources to areas neglected before it starts to even out.  I am a proponent of going to the community and finding out what they need, then trusting them to know and finding a way to provide that. Let the people lead. 

I believe in “Community First” development which ensures that the residents impacted by the development have a say in what happens and benefit from the change.  We don’t need to have people bounced out of an area that then become gentrified.

I understand that saying ‘yes’ to one project means saying ‘no’ to another.

5) Commissioner/Staff/Management Roles

What do you see as the appropriate role between staff and the commission in decision making? 

I think staff are there to do the job, to do the research and to have the expertise. The Commission is there to vote or approve and to give direction in a way that gets to decisions that reflect what their constituents want.  Given my professional experience, I feel I understand the balance between the Commissioners and staff.  While the County Administrator and staff have done an excellent job, I feel there is a sort of bureaucratic inertia in approaching things in the way we have always done things.   I don’t think this is a nefarious plan, I think that if staff feels an approach has worked before, it will work again in a new scenario.  

Because this has gone on for so long, I, as a new Commissioner, will ask more questions, ask for more research or data before issues come up as agenda items or suggested actions before the Commission. This will continue until we are headed in a direction that matches what the people want.

I think we do have staff that want to do bold new things and improve the areas they work on in the County and they need to see that when they take that initiative, the Commission is going to take that up and back it. That’s going to drive staff to do more innovation. 

It’s a matter of giving the staff more clear policy direction and it is also more of an interactive relationship between the Administrator/staff and Commission.

6) Issues of Interest to Candidate

Are there one or two issues you would like to work on and/or take leadership on as a Commissioner? 

First, affordable housing, rental and home ownership. That is a crisis in our entire country and there are levers of power that a County can use. We need to be doing everything in our power to address this and if we only have the power to do small, incremental things for our community, then we need to do everything we can to address this crisis.  People in our community are suffering.  In my family, we experienced foreclosure and this led me to go to school to learn about how money works and to become a CPA. I understand how this issue is intertwined with so many others.

Second, community first development. Take Blueprint and Office of Economic Vitality- we need to change what they are now focusing on, the conventional economic development strategies like trying to get big hotels, big companies— “premier landmark projects.”  These may create jobs, but do not necessarily help the community.

What we need to be doing now is to look at the private market, identify the gaps and focus on filling those gaps in local services. For example, we have individuals driving to other cities to get specialty medical care.  We could be finding out what medical specialties and facilities we need and turn our development staff to recruiting, developing, incubating— whatever it takes to get those new services here.  The same for skilled nursing facilities or day care and more. There are things we don’t have enough of.  If we turned our economic development focus on these, it would create jobs and alleviate stress on individuals and families. This focus on community needs is so much better than funding hotel buildings. By doing this, we would see a very different community here in Leon County in a very few years.  

7) Votes on Key Issues

A) If you had been a commissioner during the vote to expand the Urban Service Area to include the Welaunee Arch (2800 rural acres) north of I-10, how would you have voted? Explain your answer. 

I would have voted no. I feel the size of the development is going to have a large, negative impact and will not benefit enough people, especially in light of what we talked about in the Southern Action Plan. I think we are expanding the Urban Services Area in one direction, while we have a “waiting list” of areas to our south that are waiting for improvements. Just because a developer wants to do a big project it doesn’t mean that it should be developed ahead of those areas that have been waiting for improvements.

If we had an agreement for the development of significant affordable and/or income-based housing, as a part of the deal, then it would have been a different situation. When we talk about expanding the Urban Services Area to Welaunee or we do more road development up in the Killearn area that needs it, but doesn’t need it as badly as other areas, and since we have limited resources whenever we say “yes’’ to these we are saying “no” to the southside.

B) How about the vote to give $27 million of Blueprint money to FSU for stadium upgrades? Explain your answer. 

I would have voted ‘no.’  I am one of a few candidates that made clear my opinion before the vote happened.  My full public comment on this is on YouTube and on my website. It’s not that FSU didn’t need it or isn’t a good partner.  It’s where does this rank for highest and best use? The issue was about all the other projects that cannot be fulfilled.

8) Additional Comments

We appreciate you sharing your time and thoughts with us.  Is there anything you haven’t had a chance to tell us yet that you would like our neighborhoods to know?  

My background is in accounting and finance.  It’s given me a picture of how things work and how things should work. Based on the way I grew up, and the values I’ve developed, I believe people come before money. Also, if we don’t protect the local character of our community, once we lose it, we’ll never get it back.

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