By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — Democrat Susan Kahrl and Republican Jeff Gottke faced each other in a debate Tuesday night in an effort to win the votes of 4th Ward residents.
Kahrl is an incumbent at-large council member who says she has energy, enthusiasm and commitment and is ready to be the 4th Ward representative. She cited her experience on council, volunteer work at Ariel-Foundation Park and with the Mound View Cemetery tour, and involvement with Main Street Mount Vernon as part of her qualifications.
Gottke said that even though the federal government dominates Facebook conversations, he believes local government is the most important level. He said Mount Vernon is poised for growth, and he wants the city to be a destination where seniors choose to retire, people choose to move to and children love to grow up in.
Regarding the most pressing issues in the 4th Ward and their solutions, Gottke mentioned lack of funds, deferred infrastructure maintenance and the drug problem. Noting that these problems affected the whole city, not just the 4th Ward, he said community engagement is the key. “Council has to do a better job of engaging with the community,” he said.
4th Ward Council candidate Jeff Gottke makes a point at last night's candidates debate at MVNU - KP Photo
“The thing I hear most clearly and loudly in the 4th Ward is the opiate problem,” said Kahrl, adding that she has talked with many citizens and held neighborhood meetings because people were concerned about drugs being sold at Chester Shock Park. She agrees there needs to be more proactive talking with citizens to find out what they need.
On the flip side, Gottke said that residents tell him they are most concerned about drugs, brick streets and stray cats. Kahrl agreed, adding alleys as another issue because of pass-through traffic and drug activity. She said she has talked with Mayor Richard Mavis, who asked the police department for increased bike patrols in the alleys.
Responding to a question about the income diversity in the 4th Ward, Kahrl said talking with people is the way to bridge any divide and said she was excited about the opportunity for growth in the north end at Meadow Ridge Apartments. “The reason why they're doing that is they feel the community is prime for that kind of development,” she said.
Gottke said diversity in the 4th Ward is a good thing because it “forces us to talk to each other.” He said he wants residents to call him. “If they want me to stand on their porch and watch drug activities, I will,” he said.
On the brick street issue, Gottke said he loves brick streets but noted that the city faces $18 million in repairs over the next 10 years. “We've got to figure out a way to make improvements affordable,” he said. Kahrl said the brick street projects always get put on the back burner because there is not enough money. “If we get the ½ percent income tax [passed], we can make brick streets a goal,” she said.
Regarding truck traffic on East High Street, Kahrl advocates a city-wide traffic study. “We have to find ways to fix the whole city to get through transport every day – pedestrian, bike and vehicle,” she said, noting that speed bumps on Edgewood Road will just send vehicles another route.
Gottke said that the city needs a plan, not just a traffic study. “Where do we want the traffic to go?” he asked. “Essentially, we're just following problems around instead of deciding where we want the trucks to go.”
“We have a plan, it's just not being followed,” responded Kahrl. “We really need to work something out for the whole city.”
Both candidates favor charter government vs the current statutory government. Kahrl said she sees stability with a city manager under charter government, regardless of politics. Noting that the city's safety-service director is basically the same as a city manager, Gottke said the city can maintain its current structure under charter rule. “I favor a separately elected strong mayor and a separately elected council,” he said.
Asked about how the city should address the drug problem, Gottke said it is a community problem, not a city problem and that education, action and recovery is needed. “Meetings are not enough,” he said. “As councilman, I will take the lead on being educated on drug use in the 4th Ward.” Part of his action is to call landlords or property owners because “they are a big problem” with either not knowing about or ignoring drug activity on their properties.
“The drug epidemic is hurting the good qualities and putting a mar on our city,” said Kahrl. “We really need to get passionate, open lines of communication and use the crime tip hotline.”
As to whether the candidates would support a recovery house being located in the 4th Ward, Kahrl said, “I am sure there would be complaints. I think we need recovery housing but it's a very sensitive subject and something to give a lot of thought about where it's located. If it's adequately patrolled...I need to get more knowledge about what's involved.”
Gottke said that limited options only makes the drug problem worse. “We need recovery housing,” he said. “We're afraid of that. When we push them out we're saying we don't want you in our neighborhood. That's exactly what addicts don't need. When we say 'I don't want it in my neighborhood,' it only makes the problem worse.”
To create a more fiscally responsible budget, Gottke said the city needs to create and stick to a long-term spending plan for the next five to 10 years. Noting he cannot state specifics as he is not familiar with details, he said the city needs to be proactive and ask what can we spend now that will save money down the road?
Kahrl said that in her six years on council, she has seen nothing but wonderful long-term plans. “I think we've done a really good job of being conservative with the money we have,” she said, adding that deferred maintenance is now an issue because of lack of funds.
4th Ward Council candidate Susan Kahrl listens to a question at Tuesday's candidate debate at MVNU - KP Photo
In closing, Gottke repeated that Mount Vernon is poised for growth and can no longer afford to stand still. “If we are going to grow, it must be on our terms,” he said, adding that he has the energy to capitalize on a new vision for the city and neighborhoods as well as the downtown. “We no longer have the same expectations. We need new leadership and new thinking.”
“With three terms on city council, I've acquired a broad understanding of our city,” said Kahrl, adding that she also realizes why the city received the Best Hometown honor. “I'm proud to witness how the administration and residents have worked together on future improvements that will stand the test of time. We need to be proactive but also reflect on the past.” She said her abilities make her the best candidate “to be an advocate for our community.”