Four compete for three seats on city council

OKEECHOBEE — City of Okeechobee voters will choose men to fill three seats on the city council in the November election. The seats held by Dowling Watford, Gary Ritter and Noel Chandler are up for re-election this year. Mr. Chandler did not seek re-election to the council. Mayor Watford and Mr. Ritter hope to retain their seats on the council. Bob Jarriel and Bobby Keefe are also seeking election to the council. City voters may vote for up to three candidates. The top three “vote getters” will win the seats.

Bob Jarriel

Robert (Bob) Jarriel grew up in Loxahatchee, Fla. He joined the National Guard during his senior year of high school, and his unit was activated during the Berlin Crisis, soon after he graduated. He served another year in the army in Ft. Lee, Va. After his discharge, he moved to West Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Jarriel attended Palm Beach Jr. College where he took business related courses such as accounting. He has been in the construction business all his life and is a state certified contractor. In 1980, he started a construction company which he gave to four employees when he retired about six years ago. He explained, he would not have been able to retire if it weren’t for them.

Mr. Jarriel and his wife Rose moved to Okeechobee in 2004. He explains they both love Okeechobee, and although he is a member of the Okeechobee City Building and Zoning Committee and regularly attends city council and county commission meetings, he would like to become more involved in serving his community. He also says being in a nice rural community like Okeechobee just makes you want to be more involved.

Mr. Jarriel says he is a conservative Christian, a good listener and a team player. He believes in transparency and honesty and will do his best to make sure the city continues to be financially responsible while maintaining and improving the services of the city’s residents.

“I believe that it’s important to remain compliant with our ordinances on our state and federal mandates. If I’m given the opportunity to serve on the city council, my decisions will be based on what’s best for all the residents, not just an elite group. I want all residents of Okeechobee to feel safe; whether it’s the students in our schools or my wife at the movies,” said Mr. Jarriel.

Mr. Jarriel would like to see some type of Diversified Career Technology (DCT) program brought back into the school system. He explained these programs were set up to give high school kids training through the cooperative efforts of employers in the business/industry community. Students receive on-the-job training in career related fields. He believes not every child needs to go to college. There are jobs out there that they can be trained for, but kids now are all told they have to go to college.

He would like to see the town fill the empty buildings, and bring more industry to Okeechobee. If he is elected, one of the first things he would like to do is to hold a town meeting and ask the people what they would like to see done and then try to get it done, one thing at a time. He would like to see the millage rate lowered and wants to work on updating the city ordinances.

When asked why he wants to do this now that he is retired and could take it easy, Mr. Jarriel replied, “I didn’t die. I just retired. I want to do something for the community I live in.”

Bobby Keefe

Robert (Bobby) Keefe was born in Ft. Pierce and raised in Okeechobee. He began his college career at the University of Maryland but completed his degree in psychology during a tour in the Marine Corps while in Okinawa. Mr. Keefe served a total of twelve years in the Marines before being wounded and medically discharged in Afghanistan in 2012. At the time of his discharge, Mr. Keefe had obtained the rank of 2nd Lt.

Upon returning home to Okeechobee, Mr. Keefe explains he was reunited with his high school sweetheart, Bianca. They are now married, and between them have three children, Leah, Zane and Ricky. The Keefes own a local day spa called The Lounge at Sacred Heart. Mr. Keefe explained this is mostly run by his wife as she is a licensed massage therapist.

Mr. Keefe is very active in the community. He began the Wounded Warrior Center, a local non-profit to help create awareness and support for local veterans, law enforcement officers, fire fighters and their families. At this time the center does fund-raisers and rallies to help raise funds for locals who need help, and they help as needed on a case-by-case basis, but he would like to expand services to include peer-to-peer and group counseling at some point in the future. The Warrior Center believes they can find healing through serving others.

Mr. Keefe has also served on the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce for the last three years and enjoys that very much. He said he is a substitute teacher, usually at the high school. He prefers teaching older students because he feels like he can be a good mentor for them. There is so little time left before they have to go out into the world and he wants them to understand that. He enjoys sharing the knowledge he has with them. He feels all kids need a mentor, especially at that age.

When asked about his plans should he be elected to the city council, Mr. Keefe said he had some ideas. He would like to see some changes made to the downtown area, especially to the parks. He would like to make the area appear more attractive to people driving by, give the business district a face lift. He would like to see the entire downtown area made nicer not just for visitors, but for all of us. He would like to see a parking garage put in on one of the side streets to give the downtown area more parking. He also talked about getting the industrial park cleaned up and ready so we can entice new businesses in and when the businesses come, we are ready for them.

Mr. Keefe believes Okeechobee has great potential, but he is concerned about the next generation of Okeechobee. He asks himself what we can do to make things better for the next generation because if we don’t invest in economic development, those kids will grow up and move away, and eventually, Okeechobee will have no one left.

Gary Ritter

Councilman Gary Ritter has been a resident of Okeechobee for the last 44 years. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida in 1977 and moved to Okeechobee immediately afterward. His first job here was for Attaway Lumber, and he feels this gave him the opportunity to get to know the people of Okeechobee. He and his wife Ann raised their family here. Their two daughters grew up here and are now raising their own families here.

Some of his favorite things to do besides hanging out with his family are cycling and refereeing Upward basketball at the Roc. “I know some of these youth are going to be some of our leaders in the future,” he said.

Councilman Ritter worked for the South Florida Water Management District for 36 years, but almost immediately realized he wasn’t ready for retirement and went to work as the Assistant Director of Government and Community Affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau. Councilman Ritter is proud of the fact that he has always been an active member of the community. He serves on the board of trustees for Raulerson Hospital and for Healthy Start, and he is on the board of the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends and the Agricultural Extension Advisory Board.

He believes it is important for council members to not only be active in their own community but also outside their community, and because of this, he sits on boards in other areas too.

He sits on the Central Florida Regional Planning Council and on Career Source Heartland. On the Treasure Coast, he sits on the Treasure Regional League of Cities Board and the Indian River Lagoon Advisory Council. Finally, in Loxahatchee, he sits on the Loxahatchee Management Coordinating Council.

Councilman Ritter originally ran for city council four years ago when another council member asked him to consider running. He explained, if reelected, he would like to see improvements to alleyways in the business districts. They are in very bad shape right now. He would also like to see the city finish up Centennial Park which was begun many years ago and is enjoyed by so many. He believes there needs to be more transparency in city government. He would love to see the city’s website brought up to date and made more user friendly, maybe make it so the public can comment on various things going on. He would like to bring back the old format of council meetings so that the council members could comment at the end of the meetings. He believes this would give them an opportunity to talk to one another about the things that are going on. Councilman Ritter also believes traffic is a big problem here in Okeechobee. He explained that the council has been focusing on this issue and he would like to see them work even more on traffic control on back streets. Finally, he fully supports development of the Economic Development Corporation. He wants to see the city move full steam ahead with that.

Dowling Watford

Mayor Dowling R. Watford Jr. is a lifelong resident of Okeechobee. He and his wife Cheri have raised four children here. His was the last class to graduate from the old Okeechobee High School before the new school was built in 1968. He received a business management degree from the Florida Southern college in Lakeland, Fla. in 1972. Afterward, he returned home to Okeechobee where he spent 50 years working at Ford Motor Company, which was his family’s business. He recently sold the business but still works part-time as a consultant for Gilbert Ford.

Mayor Watford has been a member of the city council for 36 years and has been mayor for almost two years. He explained the mayor is not an elected official but is chosen by the city council and is always a member of the council. The council will select a new mayor after the election. They will choose one of the five council members. So, after this election, he may or may not be a council member, and he may or may not be mayor.

He is a member of the First United Methodist Church and is their finance chairman. He is a life member of the Kiwanis Club and has held several offices there. He is a member of Main Street and is the city’s liaison to Main Street. He is the Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, which means he assists chamber staff in recruiting members, attends events, acts as a greeter, volunteers to work at events and assists chamber members with any needs they may have. He is treasurer of the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends and participates in the reenactments every year, which he enjoys very much. He is also treasurer for the Okeechobee Historical Society and for Treasure Coast Council of Local Governments where he is the city’s representative.

Finally, he co-chairs the United Way Campaign with Robbie Chartier the county administrator.

Mayor Watford is a firm believer in working hard and doing the best job you can in everything you do. In June of this year, he was named a 2018 “Home Rule Hero” by the Florida League of Cities for his work to protect the home rule powers of Florida’s cities during this year’s legislative session.

Home Rule is the ability for a city to address local problems through and by local decision-makers with minimal state interference. The Home Rule Hero Award recipients are local government officials — both elected and nonelected — who consistently responded to the league’s request to reach out to members of the legislature and help give a local perspective to an issue.

“These dedicated municipal officials are some of the Florida League of Cities’ biggest advocates for municipal issues,” said Florida League of Cities President Gil Ziffer. “Their efforts during the 2018 legislative session were extraordinary. The league and its legislative team are proud to recognize and thank them for their service.”

When asked what he would like to see happen if he is reelected, Mayor Watford said he would like to continue the positive progress already being made in the city in regards to attracting new businesses and supporting the local business community while preserving Okeechobee’s history and small town atmosphere. He stressed the importance of teamwork.

He believes the council works well together as a team. Even when they don’t agree on things, once a decision is made, they work together to implement it. He also mentioned having a great city staff and how much that helps. He calls it a city family, and he hopes the leadership the council provides adds to the positive attitude throughout the staff.
Reporter Matteo Tullio contributed to this article.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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