Florida Keys

One of these people will replace a longtime Keys commissioner. Here’s what they say

Three candidates are competing in the August primary to replace long-time County Commissioner George Neugent, who is running for Marathon City Council. All three candidates cite lack of affordable housing as a key issue.
Three candidates are competing in the August primary to replace long-time County Commissioner George Neugent, who is running for Marathon City Council. All three candidates cite lack of affordable housing as a key issue.

A Realtor, a certified public accountant and the current mayor of Marathon are running to replace long-time Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent, who is not seeking a fifth term and is instead running for a seat on the Marathon City Council.

The winner of the Aug. 28 Republican primary for District 2 will face Democrat Thomas “Tommy” Ryan, a retired New York City firefighter who moved to Big Pine Key in 2011, in November. Early voting began Aug. 18.

All three GOP candidates cite the lack of affordable housing for the county’s workforce as the major issue facing the Keys.

Debbie Halama, 53, who runs a real estate practice from Big Pine Key, said she proposes the county convert its owned and leased properties into “high-density, rent-capped workforce housing communities that are close to work centers, commerce and transportation.”

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Debbie Halama

Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron, 56, didn’t offer concrete methods to address the issue, but said her time on the city council has taught her collaboration with her colleagues on the dais is the best way to address complex issues affecting constituents.

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Michelle Coldiron

“I am confident that by working together and thinking creatively, we can come up with some real solutions to the workforce housing challenge,” Coldiron said. “In my three years on the city council, we are already seeing results in Marathon.”

Charles Weitzel, 60, a Key West CPA, said the county should build housing on land it owns, but is not using, and mandate the housing always be occupied by county employees, including firefighters, teachers and deputies. He added that the lack of housing for the workforce poses a problem for the county government, which has trouble retaining quality staff because of the high cost of living in the Keys.

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Charles Weitzel

“This would guarantee that all future sales of the property would remain affordable to county employees,” Weitzel said. “This program should improve the retention of Monroe County employees, put the lot back on the property tax rolls immediately, and increase the number of workforce units in the marketplace.”

Weitzel said his accounting background qualifies him to lead District 2, which runs from the southern end of Marathon south to the Boca Chica Channel Bridge.

“I am a trusted adviser to hundreds of my local clients. I understand the problems that we all face,” Weitzel said. “I have the education, experience and ability to solve these problems. I can look at how issues are interrelated and find appropriate solutions.”

He said what sets him apart from the other candidates is his “education, experience and ability to get things done while working with others. As a CPA, I am continually analyzing and evaluating the decisions that need to be made. At this critical point, I can help preserve and protect our community.”

Coldiron said her service with area nonprofits, including the Rotary Club, Zonta International and Leadership Monroe, places her in a unique position to address the concerns of the constituents.

“I also volunteer for the Guardian ad Litem program as a child advocate for children who have been abused, and as a mentor for Take Stock in Children,” Coldiron said. “I understand the needs of our county.”

Take Stock in Children is a program that offers college scholarships to Keys children who maintain a certain grade point average throughout high school, and who stay out of trouble.

Halama said the fact that she lives and works in Big Pine Key, the population epicenter of the district, which is still reeling from the devastating hit last September’s Hurricane Irma dealt, makes her the most qualified to represent the Lower Keys.

“On a daily basis, I frequent our small businesses, converse with our residents, and see our stagnating canals and crumbling infrastructure,” she said. “My goal is to give a voice back to the Lower Keys, and give it the representation it deserves.”

“After Irma, I watched my district sit in filth for months,” Halama added. “I’ve lived through the mess and see clearly how we can improve.”

Since Neugent lives in Marathon, Halama said for the past two decades, a disproportionate amount of the council’s attention was devoted to the city, which is also represented by the District 4 commissioner.

“For 20 years, the city of Marathon has effectively had two votes while the Lower Keys has gone unheard,” Halama said. “We have to fix this.”

The other seat up for election is District 4, which includes most of Marathon and runs north until Tavernier Creek, between Plantation Key and Tavernier. Incubent David Rice, a Republican is running for re-election against Vicki Tashjian, a vacation home rental business owner in Marathon, who is running with no party affiliation.

That race will be decided on the November ballot.