Two candidates are challenging Deltona Mayor Heidi Herzberg for her job, and both say Deltona has problems that can be fixed only by a change at the top.
Political newcomer Gus Kostianis said Deltona needs stronger leadership more than anything else. His biggest complaints? Untapped potential regarding city development, and the treatment of constituents at City Commission meetings.
Kostianis also said Volusia County’s largest city should offer more recreational options and better job opportunities, and he is concerned about stories of citizens who said they felt officials at City Commission meetings ‘blew them off.’
Santiago Avila is challenging the sitting mayor, as well, after running for the open mayoral post four years ago. He shares concerns similar to those expressed by Kostianis, chiefly the underdevelopment of the city and constituents’ perception that they are largely ignored by officials.
“The residents here, they don’t get listened to, they get ignored. I stopped going to commission meetings, because I go up there, I give a speech, or I tell them something, and they just brush it off,” Avila said.
Mayor Herzberg, running for re-election, said the only way to achieve a better quality of life for Deltona residents is to have strong leadership with established experience.
Good ideas alone, she said, aren’t enough to bring about the kind of tangible changes Deltonans are looking for. Rather, Herzberg said, Deltona needs someone in office who knows how to get things done, and she said it’s exactly her experience that makes her the best candidate for the job.
Before Herzberg was elected Deltona’s mayor four years ago; In 2018, she served two terms as the city commissioner representing Deltona District 3. Ever since, she said, she has been committed to gaining all the knowledge available to her to understand the ins and outs of her position.
“I was like, the only person that did a shadowing of the city tour when I got elected, because I said, I want to understand what all these departments do,” Herzberg said.
As a result, she said, she has the knowledge and experience that will enable her to lead effectively.
During her term as mayor, Herzberg is most proud of the higher-paying jobs that were brought to the city by Amazon and the Halifax Health | UF Health – Medical Center, both of which have both opened in the city during the past four years.
Not only do these businesses provide invaluable services to the community at large, she said, they offer competitive wages and benefits. Moreover, as Herzberg noted, “It was a godsend during the pandemic.”
But her opponents say the mayor hasn’t done enough for Deltonans to justify a second term.
“I really don’t see much effort on her part, as far as city development goes,” Kostianis said.
He said the key to combating poverty is to bring in businesses that will create more jobs. He and Avila agree that Deltona needs a city center, which, in theory, would offer both jobs and increased recreational activities.
Herzberg, however, said there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the reality of this particular issue. She said her opponents need to be more specific about how they’re going to attract more jobs and development.
“’Well, I’m gonna be friendly,’” Herzberg said as an example of one response she’s heard. “OK; that’s fine. I’m friendly, too. How are you going to do it?”
She believes good ideas are one thing, but the ability to follow through is another. Herzberg agrees that Deltonans need better job opportunities, but also believes that many businesses won’t invest in Deltona because of its demographics and the fact that much of the city lacks a sewage system and must depend on septic tanks.
Most companies, Herzberg said, have a minimum median income for potential new locations, and Deltonans just aren’t making enough, on average, to entice some of the businesses they’d like to see.
Consequently, she said, the idea of reducing poverty by attracting more businesses is flawed, because to increase more businesses, you must first reduce poverty.
Not only that, Herzberg said, but without sanitary sewer systems in place for commercial areas, businesses refuse to set up shop locally. While she agrees that commercial sewer systems are cost-prohibitive in residential areas, and should not be forced on homeowners, she said a sewage system will be essential to increase commercial development.
If her challengers don’t understand these complexities, Herzberg said, however well-intentioned their goals may be, they won’t be equipped to achieve those goals.
She also didn’t mince words in discussing the troubles of one of her opponents, Santiago Avila.
“I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus, but it’s amazing to me how you could get evicted for not paying your rent, and so on and so forth, and then want to run a $200 million budget,” Herzberg said.
Avila is very open about his past financial troubles, and views them as a strength rather than a weakness.
“I don’t hide the fact that I almost got evicted from a house because of COVID. I’m open about it,” Avila said. “My wife and I almost got evicted from our house, because we couldn’t work. We couldn’t work and it’s tough.”
He noted that he and his family weren’t alone in being negatively impacted by the pandemic, this experience is further proof that he’s just like everyone else. He’s equipped with the knowledge of what residents need the most, because he’s been through similar situations.
It’s precisely his experience as a typical concerned citizen, Avila said, that alerted him to the perception that officials ignore residents during City Commission meetings.
“There was a commission meeting with some important topics, and Heidi locked the doors on all the residents. … One of the residents started knocking on the door really hard … and somebody heard her when they were looking at the video,” he said. “She was like, ‘If they knock like that again, we’re gonna get them arrested.’”
Beyond this specific instance, Avila is concerned about how constituents are treated on a regular basis.
“A resident is talking and maybe one or two commissioners are looking at that person, the rest are on their phones, they’re texting, they’re going through social media, to see who’s criticizing them. They’re eating something. It’s like they don’t care what people are saying,” Avila said.
Kostianis largely concurs.
“I’ve been to city council meetings in the past, and I’ve seen how the city council reacts to residents when they give them time to speak. And I’m not happy about it,” Kostianis said.
Mayor Herzberg, however, said these surface-level claims can be misleading.
The City Commission meeting referenced by Avila, she said, which took place on May 18, 2020, was closed to the public due to an executive order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as part of an emergency COVID-19 measure.
So, in lieu of face-to-face participation, Herzberg said, the City Commission went to great lengths to livestream the meeting both online and on TV, as well as offering opportunities for public comments to be sent via the livestream or email to be addressed on the spot. She noted the meeting was also archived on the city’s website for anyone to reference in the future.
The acting city manager at the time, Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper, made the decision to go virtual on this particular day, the only meeting to ever be closed to the public in Deltona, Herzberg said.
During this, the mayor noted, a group of residents stood outside the chamber doors and started causing a ruckus.
“They were pounding on the glass so hard that we could not hear ourselves talk. And they were pounding, chanting ‘let us in, let us in,’ and slamming on the door,” Herzberg said.
She said the belligerence of community members during official meetings has a long-standing history, but it has improved since she took office.
As far as claims of commissioners being on their phones and otherwise “blowing off” residents, Herzberg said this indicates another example of a misunderstanding of procedure.
City Commission members use personal phones or government-issued tablets to do research in real time, and this has been clarified to the public on numerous occasions, she said.
“When residents come up and accuse us of things or have questions on things, I try to research it right then and there, to have an answer for them,” Herzberg said.
A strict city policy prohibits personal texting or emailing during meetings, so any use of technology is either due to note-taking or research, she said.
Money money money
Volusia County Elections Office records show that, as of July 15, the incumbent mayor is leading in fundraising, with $6,286.21 in her campaign kitty.
Avila had reported $3,547.76 in monetary contributions, including $974.31 in in-kind contributions.
Kostianis reported $2,560.00 in monetary contributions, and as of July 15, had spent $2,407.18. Herzberg had spent $615.24, and Avila had spent $2,426.58.