ZEPHYRHILLS — In the city's mayoral race, there's one thing on which the two candidates strongly agree: No one is going to fill the shoes of outgoing Mayor Cliff McDuffie, who has served the city for a decade.
But both business owner Michael Payne and Zephyrhills High principal Steve Van Gorden vow to be the next best thing and do the best job they can.
The public interest in who will assume McDuffie's duties after the April 10 election was clear Monday night when a mayoral debate at Alice Hall Community Center drew about 90 people — by all accounts one of the most well-attended of such events in at least a decade.
Payne, 53, grew up in Tampa and often visited Zephyrhills. He moved to the city with his wife in 2001 seeking a quiet homespun lifestyle and started Payne Pest Management Services. In 2008 he ran unsuccessfully for City Council Seat 2, which Jodi Wilkeson has held ever since.
After the election, he was appointed to the city's Planning Commission and stayed on beyond his first term, resigning last fall saying it was a "rubber stamp" operation after it approved a proposal to seek brownfield status for a large part of the city. He raised concerns then about the stigma of the government label that identifies areas that could be contaminated, and the need for more information. He still does not support the designation, which the City Council is still considering for its economic incentives to draw business — and jobs — to the area. He sees the area as green space, prime for development if the city takes a more active role in recruiting businesses to the area.
Van Gorden, 36, might be a relative new resident to the city moving here in 2009, in the same year he became principal of the high school. But he is not a political newcomer. Van Gorden served on the Dade City Commission from 2004 to 2009 when he stepped down three years before his term expired to concentrate on his family when he was going through a divorce. He is actively involved in the community and was appointed to the city's Planning Commission in August. Van Gorden thinks the city should strongly consider using brownfield status for the economic incentives to lure large businesses to the area.
"The one thing that I have constantly preached to Zephyrhills government is that Zephyrhills needs a super sales person," Payne said. "You cannot wait around until that perfect company just drops in on your lap and wants to make their home their. You have actively got to go out and seek the companies you want to bring to Zephyrhills."
Likewise, Van Gorden says the city needs a redevelopment champion. He says his experience on the Dade City Commission and working with that city Community Redevelopment Agency and as a school administrator would be an asset to Zephyrhills.
"There's really a clear connection between being a high school principal and being the mayor of the town," he said, adding that in the first role he guides students into careers and as mayor he would help guide the city to economic success.
He too thinks the city is at a crossroads and in order to be successful it needs a mayor with a strong vision and proven leadership who can work with all of the city's people and resources. Van Gorden said he would use much of his time in the first months listening to the people.
"Obviously, I want to win, but the bottom line is having people engage so we can make better decisions for the community," Van Gorden said. "That's what it's all about."
During the debate Monday, Payne proposed a Mayor's Council. If elected, he said, any resident can be a part of the council which will meet four times a year to address city concerns and propose ideas and solutions.
The job of mayor is for two years and pays $6,000 annually. On Tuesday, the city will have only one polling place open at Alice Hall Community Center, 38116 Fifth Ave.