County Commission District 1: Donna Pearl Cotterell

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 the Bond Community for the last four years.  I love this community and find that it doesn’t deserve its bad reputation; there are plenty of friendly kids and families here that are happy to call Bond home and to work together as a community. That said, these residents recognize that Bond has been underserved for years in terms of government-supported infrastructure. These residents who have given so much to the Bond Community should be afforded the infrastructure common in other neighborhoods so the neighborhood can thrive. I am not on the neighborhood association board, but I frequently attend their meetings and help organize and participate in their events, such as the Bond Block Party and some neighborhood street theatre.

B)  What events led you to run for elected office?

There were two main events. First, I attended a candidate’s forum that included District 1 candidates.  I didn’t see much difference in approach by the candidates, so chose to run to be a candidate responsive to the real needs of District 1 residents. Second, the Blueprint funding for the FSU stadium was so outrageous to me, I knew I needed to jump in the race.

2) Comprehensive Plan Update Process

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

A)  I know enough to know that the plan is not sufficient to actually guide growth and development, at least not from a community-driven perspective. The Southern Strategy Plan written in 2014 is a good example. It had some wonderful ideas for getting computers and internet into homes, building safe sidewalks and trails, and many other things that never happened. When we don’t follow through with the plans as written, it’s not a surprise that people give up on government . . . and that’s not fair for the people who have traditionally been underserved. 

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

They should have a lot of input; in fact, community input should start from the problem identification and continue through the ordinance writing and approval process. As it is now, when the community gets to participate, it’s frequently too late in the process. There are many people who believe that there is usually a “hidden” plan developed by staff and influential community members. Commissioners too often work these plans rather than listening to the community at large. When we see how some plans seem to come out of nowhere or others get changed significantly as they go through the development process, it’s reasonable to conclude that hidden plans may indeed have a lot more impact than citizen input. We need a much more transparent process to develop and implement community responsive growth and development policies. 

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

I was involved in the effort to get the TPD headquarters moved out of the south side of town and I must admit that the community input did work in this case, probably because the situation was so intense and divisive. So, I am very much in favor of strong citizen involvement in deciding the use of public properties.  We could do a much better job of clarifying public opinions and ensuring that we create public spaces and facilities in locations that promote equity and easy accessibility. 

4) Growth and Development Decisions

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

Yes.  But we need to make sure that we implement those things in a way that the surrounding neighborhood sees as useful. I think we can all agree that safe sidewalks are a good idea, particularly in the south side of town where so many residents walk rather than drive. But there are some projects that get built that seem like good ideas to planners and a few selected “community resource people” but that don’t meet the needs of most people in the neighborhood. I think of the St. Marks Trail extension that goes up through the south side to connect to Cascades Park. People that live near that extension don’t use it, particularly at night. They would have much preferred that there be more safe sidewalks built along neighborhood streets. Similarly with Speed Spencer Stephens Park, it must have seemed like a good idea to planners, but there’s really nothing to do there.  Then, at night, it is too often a place of prostitution and drug use. It’s not a park that was built for the surrounding community.

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 address this and ensure growth is equitable and benefits all of our citizens?

There’s not an easy answer to this question. There is more tax revenue being spent on the South Side to reduce the inequality that existed for too many years. Yet, by the projects selected, residents do not see much of a return, much of an improvement in their quality of life. We need to empower citizens so they can convince commissioners and staff to produce projects and services that the citizens want. People feel that government doesn’t want to listen to them. We need to convince people to speak out. Plus, we need to convince commissioners and staff that, say, a woman working three jobs so she can support her family still knows what she wants; don’t ignore or discount her.

5)  What do you see as the appropriate role between staff and the commission in decision making? Do you think staff currently has too much influence, about enough or too little? Explain. 

Staff should take recommendations from commissioners as to what the commissioners want to accomplish and then do the necessary research to determine that the recommendation is legal, what the possible implementation options and costs are, what other communities have done and to what result, that sort of practical fact-finding. Too often, at the county and city, the situation is practically reversed. The staff bring forth options to solve “problems” they want solved, identified options that make their preferred choice stand out, and then ask commissioners to approve their conclusions. We have to remember that both the city and county managers were helped into office by Scott Maddox, a convicted corrupt politician. They have not had to be responsive to the community at large and most commissioners accept this staff approach with no questions asked.  That’s not right.

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

Yes, I would like to play a lead role in Leon County’s proactive approach to addressing poverty. To me, this approach would be driven by the perspective of extending not a handout, but a helping hand. One essential way to address poverty is to help residents start small businesses. We’ve seen how microloans have worked to get small businesses started and grow into successful businesses in developing countries and some places in the US.  For instance, it can be something as simple as growing food, vegetables, fruits, chickens, whatever, such that the resident can earn some cash to supplement their current earnings. There are many small businesses that could work on this approach. I believe this would impact many more people than trying for higher wages in many jobs . . . though I do support the $15/hr. minimum wage. For many people, though, even that will not be sufficient to meet their expenses. These side jobs also would not need to be tech-oriented; frequently they are rather low skill and that means many people could do them right away given the right supports, supports that Leon County could provide especially with various private and public partners.

Second, I would like to support literacy, especially for children. I’m a middle school teacher. I see children that did not learn to read well by third grade and as they get to middle school they can no longer keep up. The kids are then traumatized and fall further behind and soon are looking to drop out of school. Their parents, often the victims of poor schooling themselves, may not have what it takes to help their children with literacy. While this may seem like an “education problem,” I view it as a community problem that we need to work together to address. For instance, Leon County could work with the school system with before school and after school literacy programs, the county libraries could improve their bookmobile-based programs or other forms of community outreach for literacy. We need to get creative to support literacy, keep kids successful in school, and develop productive citizens as we reduce the juvenile crime and violence that is far too prevalent today.

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!  We’re spending too much money to convert rural land to urban when we already have too much urban land and residents that need help. The northeast quadrant of Tallahassee and Leon County has received most of the development assistance for too long. They don’t need the development there, especially not with the cost to city and county residents that come with providing urban services far out of town. It’s not right economically, environmentally, or socially.

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. This vote was a headscratcher for me because it seemed so obviously wrong to fund the improvements with Blueprint funds and the bonding. Here we have a well-funded university and a strong FSU Boosters funding organization on one hand and on the other, in the very shadow of the stadium, the poorest zip code in Florida. Does that disparity seem incongruous? It sure does to me. We need commissioners to speak to the real and immediate needs of our city and county. In Pinellas County they used a funding source similar to Blueprint to buy land to advance affordable housing and reduce homelessness. We could use more ideas like that in Leon County.

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

I would like to see children’s arts programs supported throughout our community, but particularly in low income neighborhoods so they could be accessible to all. For many children, the programs we have are too expensive for them to participate. But the arts provide a great forum for children to learn self-expression and to support one another. This is a great way for children to interact in a less demanding environment than schools and in a more cooperative way than many sports. By making the arts unavailable to children we miss an opportunity for them to be successful, to strengthen their self-concept, and to learn to help and be helped by others. Those are all good things that we need big time these days.

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