Orange Beach City Council candidates answer hot button questions

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You have questions, they have answers. Two of the five places on the Orange Beach City Council are contested. Annette Mitchell is being challenged for place 1 by Joe Cardwell and Joni Blalock is being challenged for place 5 by Joe Fierro.

We asked the four candidates for their answers to a variety of questions to give voters an opportunity to compare candidates ahead of the election.

The 2020 Orange Beach Municipal Election is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 25. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Registered voters in Orange Beach vote at the Orange Beach Community Center, 27235 Canal Road.

What would you do in your first 90 days if elected?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – As an incumbent, no acclimation period would be necessary. At the start of the next term in November, as council finance liaison, I will be helping to wrap up the 2021 proposed budget for Orange Beach for final council review and vote. The end of year items I will assist in are employee benefits review, building projects status, first quarter agenda.

Joe Cardwell – I would thank all voters and volunteers that assisted in my campaign. I would assure all residents that I am their voice and representative regardless of whether they voted for me or not. I would like to give each neighborhood an opportunity to set up a meeting that I would attend to discuss their issues and concerns. I think it is very important to keep an open line of helpful communication with Alabama Department of Transportation and Director Cooper to ensure a speedy completion of the Canal Road Project. I really believe that within 90 days we will still need to enhance and make available more COVID-19 education. I plan to visit and listen to each department within the city and obtain their input on how we can help their department be more effective and efficient. I will visit each school and assure them I will support their school and their administration. I will ask for a review of our city core standards.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – Among the many life lessons I have learned during my 35 years of service to our wonderful Pleasure Island is that the pursuit of community excellence is much more of a marathon than a sprint. Virtually all of the long list of quality of life improvements and protections we have secured are the result of prudent, tenacious, transparent and steady leadership: principles I have personally committed to during my years of service on the Orange Beach City Council. In many respects the first 90 days of my new term will therefore not differ greatly from the last 90—in that I will continue to apply those very same principles. Much of my focus will be on ensuring that the many projected quality of life improvement projects that are currently in progress are successfully completed. Our collective long-term persistence and insistence on the widening of Canal Road will very soon come to fruition to the great benefit of all. Our new adult fitness center will also be completed soon, creating improved space and accessibility for our adult residents while providing greatly needed space for our much praised Expect Excellence programs. The Orange Beach Performing Arts Center is also nearing completion, and our new Orange Beach Middle School and High School opened to students Aug. 12. During the first 90 days and for as long as it takes, I will be doing everything I can to ensure the health and safety of everyone in our city, including our selfless first responders and others on the front lines. We have borne sad witness to the devastating economic impact the pandemic has had on many of our nation’s cities, and it is a testament to the teamwork of our current council and mayor that we have successfully confronted these challenges just as we have done with previous crises like hurricanes and the oil spill. It is imperative that we closely monitor the health, safety, and economic welfare of our community during these first 90 days of the next term and beyond.

Joe Fierro - Initially I will request a list of all city projects, initiatives and their respective statuses. I will also request, if available, current strategic plans (long and short term), how these are prioritized, the city’s current financial assets and 2020 budget for all departments. I will meet with my fellow council members and the mayor regarding our path forward. Finally, I will ensure local citizens are free to contact me at their convenience to voice concerns and opinions regarding city plans, operations and services.

Some people in the community say that we have traffic problems. What do you think? How would you mitigate those concerns or change the situation?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – Traffic is a constant challenge in Orange Beach.  Our years long initiative to five lane Canal Road has been achieved and will be enhanced by our three lane project of Canal Road East and the bypass of the Canal Road/Highway 161 intersection project for two southbound lanes.  A roundabout will be constructed at the Arts Center to improve traffic flow at that pinch point.

Joe Cardwell – Yes, we do have a traffic problem. Having met the Canal Road Project Director, I am convinced the project is in good hands. The first thing I would do is make myself available to assist or help in any way toward the completion of this project. We need to help Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and Director Cooper get over any hurdles they encounter. The 6.5 million annual visitors to Baldwin County do not come to Orange Beach to drive down Canal Road on a hot July day.  Of course, they come to go to the beach. Therefore, a more permanent solution to our traffic problems would be for myself and a delegation go to Montgomery to visit with the Governor, ALDOT, State Park officials and appropriate legislators. I think we should ask once more, face-to-face, for approval and permit of an above park Powerline Road that would connect the Beach Express to the beach road. If we get positive answers, we should follow up and set timelines. I am also in favor of enhancing golf cart and bicycle pathways and sidewalks. The more people we get off the road helps make our traffic faster and safer.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – In the summer months, heavy traffic is one of the challenges we as beach dwellers unfortunately face, and I know that it can sometimes present frustrations for our citizens who are trying to live their “normal” lives and get from place to place. During my time on the council, I have constantly looked at the issue of traffic and sought out the best solutions that were available. That includes the current widening of Canal Road. Recently, the council has turned our attention to the proposed bypass from Canal Road to Highway 161, and it presents great potential for alleviating one of our more congested areas. We are also seeking to widen Canal Road East to continue to offer a smoother flow of traffic to our citizens. These ongoing projects require diligence and continued good relationships with the State of Alabama since they control most of our roadways. I am pleased to say that we have that cooperative relationship at this time. I will always be open to hearing ideas about ways to mitigate traffic, and when solutions are identified, I will support them if they are to the benefit of our citizens and city.

Joe Fierro - Given our growth coupled with what has become a year-round increase in visitation we are definitely experiencing growing pains, particularly on our roads. I believe we need to first focus on both short term and long-term goals to improve roadways within Orange Beach. This requires reexamination of the Powerline Road proposal, the Florida Avenue bypass (next to Pep Boys) and the creation of plans with ALDOT and as needed the city of Gulf Shores. With council and mayor, I would seek to foster an improved relationship with ALDOT to gain both short and long-term commitments. Furthermore, I believe a citizens committee for traffic issues would be very helpful. We have citizens with years of experience in related fields that can bring innovative ideas to the table that may benefit the entire community.

What makes you stand out from other candidates?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – Being one of two females on our council, affords me the opportunity to bring a unique perspective to Orange Beach.  My extensive business experience combined with my integrity, grit and devotion to my city all position me for success.

Joe Cardwell – I am not and will not be part of any political coalition whether it be any candidate seeking office or incumbents. Therefore, my only obligation is to the residents of Orange Beach. We have great schools in Orange Beach within the Baldwin County School System. As a city we have supported and will continue to support our schools. I believe that I am the only candidate that chose education as a career. I have 41 years' experience in education as a classroom teacher, coach and administrator. Bottom line: I think we would be wise as a city to have at least one council member with a background in education that is willing and capable of working with our schools and the Baldwin County School Board.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – The biggest difference between myself and my opponent is that I have lived, worked, and served in this community for 35 years versus his three years. My roots are deep, and my commitment to my community is even deeper. Because this is my home, I have long been a part of both building it in a structural sense and by fostering the community that we know and love. I have a longstanding history of showing respect to my neighbors and being a good listener. I believe that the best leadership starts with listening and learning from the people I serve. I also believe in building teams that work together and have a history of doing so very effectively. My ability to facilitate and foster cooperation between individuals, groups, and constituencies who hold divergent views on any given issue, has helped bring people together to make progress for our city.

Joe Fierro - I have 30 years of public service experience as a United States Air Force officer, FBI special agent and manager and as the Orange Beach police chief. I understand the value of creating personal and professional relationships in Orange Beach and with our city, state and federal counterparts. I believe this is required to address issues and propel our city forward. I truly understand it is a privilege and honor to serve our citizens and will ensure I am respectful and responsive to their requests.  I will further seek to invite community input before committing to major undertakings.

What is the one major issue you plan to address?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – Having a population of 6,000 plus with an annual budget of $45 million generates interest in our revenues but not in our votes. The major issue I plan to continue to promote are the relationships we have forged, fostered and nurtured for Orange Beach with our county, state and federal partners.

Joe Cardwell – It is hard to single out one issue in a town that is as unique as Orange Beach. However, two that stand out are growth management and making sure all residents know they have a voice and representative in our city. Growth management because it is such a complex issue. Growth management has a direct influence on traffic problems, the environment, family incomes, established neighborhoods and homes, scenery and beautification, schools, churches, businesses and others that I have not mentioned. Legal issues and entitlements make this issue even more complex. However, growth management and control is an issue that needs to be addressed on a regular basis. The second major issue that I would address is the need and right of every resident in Orange Beach to know they have a voice and representative at city hall. When people know when someone has their interest, it is much easier to have a city that works together, faces traffic problems together, faces pandemics together, supports schools together, plays together and lives together as a robust, thriving community.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – Recently, there has been a call from many to establish greater access to the beach for residents. For some time, I and my colleagues have been investigating ways we could create dedicated beach access for our residents. If I had to pick the next major project to complete, it would be this one. It would be a fantastic amenity to add to our list for residents. We would be able to achieve this by issuing resident family passes for access. Gulf Shores has recently embarked on a similar project. After we settle on an appropriate piece of property at an appropriate price, I would work to make sure we maximize it to serve the most people possible.

Joe Fierro - The challenge of balancing residents’ quality of life with our explosive growth in tourism. This encompasses infrastructure and planning however I will limit my response to local quality of life initiatives. Orange Beach is a clean, safe and a unique community. Our visitors feel valued and cared for which has led to our growth. It is important our local citizens feel the same way.  From the outset of my candidacy I have advocated for the purchase of beachfront property exclusively for local use. I have also advocated for the creation of a golf cart path system throughout the city beginning three years ago. This will provide a safe, legal and appealing pathway to our citizens and visitors to move about the city for their enjoyment and to patronize city businesses. This coupled with a local beach club exclusively for local resident use makes Orange Beach a sought-after destination for permanent residency and I believe will increase our property values.

Do you feel the current planning and zoning regulations are in the best interest of the property owners? What changes would you make?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – As council liaison to the Orange Beach Planning Commission, I have a voice on two levels to ensure our regulations and projects are beneficial to both our residents and investors.  I am very proud of the stance this council has taken to not up zone any property.  I will continue to protect this delicate balance.

Joe Cardwell – I believe that most property owners that are residents would agree that it is in their best interest to put the family home as priority over a short-term lease agreement. Many residents do not want a new neighbor every other week. I favor the family atmosphere over the short term rentals in traditional neighborhoods. They do not make more land. Therefore, limiting the population density is a very important aspect of maintaining our resident’s lifestyle. I will make a more detailed study of our current planning and zoning regulations.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – I do feel that our current planning and zoning regulations are in the best interest of property owners. The current sitting mayor and council have not up zoned any property to a higher density, and we have eliminated the short-term vacation rentals in our residential neighborhoods, which were causing a number of problems for our residents. In all of our deliberations over zoning, I have always taken the time to examine the question at hand from every angle to be sure that the community and the developer get the best project that it can possibly be. Oftentimes, we have been able to get more green space, help with drainage problem areas, and reduce density by working with developers. If there is one area that I feel needs to be reevaluated on an ongoing basis, it would be parking requirements.

Joe Fierro - Residents are clearly concerned regarding the level of development and increased visitation in the area. The move to limit short-term rentals in residential areas was a positive move in the right direction. I am a proponent of controlled growth and admittedly our options are limited. Working with the council, mayor and soliciting input from our community I will seek to improve our quality of life. The first step is the beachfront exclusively for local use. This is a definite win for locals, will open more spaces at state beaches for visitors and the beach club will reduce congestion with one less condominium on the beach.

Do you feel residents and their quality of life are prioritized over tourists? If no, what would you do to put residents first?

Place 1

Annette Mitchell (incumbent) – In Orange Beach we fund resident amenities from our tourist revenues. This past year alone we have donated the land for our new county middle and high school, have built a second gymnasium for our children and have broken ground for an adult only gym to allow separation from our children, and our total replacement of our tennis courts is nearing completion. I work very hard to ensure that Life is Better in Orange Beach.

Joe Cardwell – No, I believe that we should continue to explore ways to give back to the residents. I believe that we can afford to make all our facilities free of charge to our residents. The possibility of providing a resident only beach with parking is another way to give back to our residents. I would like to provide year-round technology education for our residents. Many of our seniors would like to stay on the island near their loved ones, but as they get older they may have to move off to an assisted living. I would like to reach out to private industry to explore the possibility of providing a first-class assisted living facility in Orange Beach. We need to plan the fastest and safest route possible to the new 24/7 health care facility in Gulf Shores.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – I absolutely feel that our residents’ quality of life is prioritized. We may be councilmembers, but we are residents first. Our city offers an amazing 24/7 gym for less the $100/year. We have medical emergency help within minutes thanks to new, state-of-the-art ambulances that have resident physicians riding in them. We have an extremely clean city and wonderful employees who keep it that way. We have a brand-new middle and high school, arts center and more. The list is long, and I will work to make it even longer. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the economic engine that provides all the amenities that we love. The tourism industry is our financial driving force, so we must work to meet its needs as well in order to be able to continue to enhance our residents’ quality of life. This is why I place a great deal of importance on protecting the beautiful environment we live in, which is deeply loved and cherished by all who live and visit our shores.

Joe Fierro - It is my opinion that many of our residents have been lost or forgotten in the year over year growth in tourism and development. I would like to create a citizens committee devoted to local quality of life comprised of a cross section of our community. This would be to focus on projects such as beachfront, private/public initiatives, issues unique to our seniors and additional initiatives (such as a parking garage) to improve quality of life for our citizens and local businesses. Like many I want Orange Beach to be a unique sought-after community.

Is there anything I have not asked that you want to add?

Place 1

Joe Cardwell – There is no reason for a city with our financial opportunities to ever raise taxes on our residents. I will fight to never raise taxes for any reason and especially without a referendum. Taxes are one reason I want to keep our schools great so that we never have a need to go to a city school system which would put our taxpayers and students at risk.

Place 5

Joni Blalock (incumbent) – I want to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this question and answer, and I want residents to know that as always, I welcome their phone calls, emails and face-to-face meetings, so I can better understand their needs and desires for our city. I hope the citizens of Orange Beach will once again place their trust in me for another four years, and I want to express my humble gratitude to everyone who’s voted for me in the past and to everyone who has been a part of one of our many projects to better our community. I vow to continue my dedicated service and leadership as an integral member of a cohesive, experienced and productive team. Thank you.

Joe Fierro - Orange Beach continues to experience growth. In order to lead and guide the city forward it is imperative we plan in the short and long term. Doing this requires a team approach comprised of capable staff and the city council. I am committed to working with this team to create and implement a long-term vision which can be accessed by every citizen.  The citizen’s voices must be heard and they must feel free to approach their elected body with any questions, ideas or concerns.