By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — Five at-large candidates vying for three Mount Vernon City Council positions fielded questions Tuesday night before an audience of around 80 people. An additional 87 unique IPs logged on to watch a live stream of the event.
Incumbents John Booth (D) and Janis Seavolt (R) seek re-election. Republicans Christopher Menapace and Matt Starr and Democrat Donald Bovinett Jr. seek their first term on council.
Booth cited his more than 14 years experience on city council, working with five different mayors, and his ability to work with people and find solutions as his qualifications for re-election. Noting that he was part of building a new pool, updating the water plant and creating Mount Vernon Avenue, he said he feels council was looking ahead. He said he has always tried to make Mount Vernon a better place, treat people with respect and help get things done.
The city's former fire chief and a youth coach, Menapace said the city faces a nonsustainable budget, infrastructure deficiencies and public safety shortcomings. He said he brings passion and the understanding to settle these problems. He said the sign he wants to see hanging in the mayor's office is “Safest and Most Economically Sound City in Ohio.”
Starr said he fell in love with the city when he came to work at the Mount Vernon Developmental Center in 1991 and saw how passionate people are about the city. He became involved with nonprofit organizations and as a councilman wants to support entities to get the job done. “I want to serve my community. I want to be part of a team that advances the city and prepares it for our grandchildren.”
Seavolt cited her six years experience on council, and said she believes council has been doing a good job. “We listen and call,” she said.
Bovinett said council is a legislative body that underwrites what we do day by day. He wants to focus on retaining the city's youth and “make sure we have something there for them to stay for. “I personally bring to the table a willingness to listen and am willing to be there for each person each time,” he said. He wants to advocate for, listen to and be the voice of residents.
The candidates also answered the following questions posed by representatives from KnoxPages.com, WNZR/Mount Vernon Nazarene University, the Mount Vernon News and WMVO/WQIO.
If elected, what are your goals and what legislation will you bring in the first six months?
*Menapace: “I believe the purpose of local government is public safety and infrastructure. I will sustain and continue both of those issues.”
*Starr: Two main goals are to make sure the public is safe and make sure they can get around from point to point safely. He said he will make sure firefighters and fire/EMS personnel are equipped and ready to go, and he will start saving money to address infrastructure and big projects.
*Seavolt: One thing you cannot foresee is cuts such as local government funding. “So now we have to look elsewhere. You can't plan for something you can't foresee.”
*Bovinett: Infrastructure and safety. Traffic studies are great but only if you're willing to be open to new ideas. “I wont promise specific goals. I want to make Mount Vernon a good place; whatever comes up as a major topic is what I want to address.”
*Booth: Adequate safety forces, good streets, adequate water. “I want [our safety forces] to be the best, not second best.”
What effort will you make to understand what your constituents want?
*Starr: “You have to listen. Sometimes you have to go to the neighborhoods; open lines of communication.” Legislation isn't always required, just a good plan and communication. Explore newer technology where citizens are able to connect more readily.
*Seavolt: Legislation isn't the complete answer. She cited the issue of truck traffic on residential streets; council would like to require the offenders to appear in court rather than just pay the fine, but that has to be decided by the municipal judge. “If drivers don't follow the route established by their employer, they get fired. How do you get to the employer?” she asked.
*Bovinett: New technology and ways to connect with citizens. “Maybe not an intimate and personal level, but at least we can listen. We like to talk, but we need to stop and listen.”
*Booth: In his years on council, he's never seen a time when citizens couldn't get to a member of council. “That's the way it should be.” Phone numbers are posted, citizens can come to council. “There have been times when ideas from citizens have become ordinances.”
*Menapace: Talk and more active listening. “I don't need to know everything, but I need to be able to call and find out. I need to familiarize myself with resources on whatever the issue may be.”
What is your view of the role of city council representative?
*Seavolt: Listening. “You have to be able to talk to people and listen to what they are saying.” Be a team member. “We're not Republican or Democrat; we all have the same desire, to make Mount Vernon better.”
*Bovinett: To be an advocate for the citizens by listening and asking questions. “When you do that, you can make a great thing even better. Working with other council members is good, but it's to be an advocate.
*Booth: Listening. “There have been many times I've said 'I don't know, but I'll find out and let you know.'”
*Menapace: “We serve their needs.” Re actively, by serving the needs of the community. Proactively by planning and expertise in local government.
*Starr: Council is a legislative body, but you are part of a team. “Don't judge behavior, study it. You don't have to create laws to change behavior, just think and study and find ways to change.” Also, a council member is an ambassador for the city.
If elected, what would you do different from those already elected?
*Bovinett: Fresh perspective. The vote to disallow medical marijuana will negatively affect citizens suffering from opiate addiction. Be willing to explore those avenues.
*Booth: Continue to work within the framework of council. Council members don't always agree but always come to the right decision.
*Menapace: “I bring a challenge; I ask tough questions. I ask 'why?' I will make sure legislation is sound...make sure council understands the big picture.” Bring legislation necessary for the five- to 10-year plan.
*Starr: Council's role in supporting the administration's agenda is to tell the story where we're going. Use new technology to reach a wider audience. “I bring the technical expertise to council so we can harness public-private relationships.”
*Seavolt: As at-large representative, will try to help citizens. If constituent is from another ward, will enlist the aid of that ward council member. “Two people working get better results, better ideas.”
How are you prepared to hit the ground running as far as finances?
*Booth: Start with appropriations in January and see what funds we have. The administration gives the budget, but council decides the appropriations.
*Menapace: Feels he is well versed in the area of fire/EMS, not as much regarding the police, water and street departments, but the principle's the same and he understands the concept. His focus will be “what will we do to move forward?”
*Starr: “The budget is meant to be spent, but we are not spending it on extravagances.” Need a 10-year plan, prioritize those projects.
*Seavolt: Process starts in November with department heads and administration creating budgets. “When we finally get it we have to decide whether they can get it. They aren't asking for the moon.”
*Bovinett: “I will certainly ask for help when needed, but also I am a computer science major. So budgets are what I've gotten used to seeing.” “Being in organizations where you have to make tough choices where [the money] will go.”
What is the biggest issue facing the city and how will you solve it?
*Menapace: Budget shortfall, deficient infrastructure and deficient public safety. “There's a ½ percent income tax on the ballot; hopefully that will pass. If not, we have tough decisions.” The $94 million in capital improvements needs a 10-year plan to address and prioritize.
*Starr: “Drugs, that's no secret.” “Infrastructure is a ticking time bomb.”
*Seavolt: Drugs. “The levy takes care of worrying about police and fire; that money we subsidize stays in the general fund. A lot depends on the levy.”
*Bovinett: Safety—infrastructure falls under that. “As legislators, that's one of the things we can truly advocate for.”
*Booth: Jobs: “We need to do more to get industry here. Drugs: “I feel we should work more on stopping drugs coming in.”
Are you in favor of charter government?
*Starr: Likes charter because of the ability to recruit employees from all over; otherwise, you're just looking for the next person to pass a test.
*Seavolt: Needs to explore it more. Concerned about taking away the incentive to stay within the community.
*Bovinett: Needs to know more; need to be aware of unintended consequences.
*Booth: Long-term, charter would be good.
*Menapace: Favors charter because it “gives the opportunity to write the rules that we need to govern our community.” Eliminates the “archaic” civil service process.
Should council revisit the ban on medical marijuana activities within the city?
*Seavolt: “You can always review and change a law. I don't think we were wrong.” There are 60 dispensaries in the state where people can access medical marijuana, so they won't have to travel very far. Police and fire personnel said no to medical marijuana activities. “We weren't confused about marijuana and medical marijuana.” The fact that it had to be a cash deal because the federal government considers marijuana illegal bothered council. “There were too many things not feasible to put it into the city.”
*Bovinett: Hopes it will be revisited; he would bring it back to the table with the information and studies available. Said council wasn't necessarily wrong at the time; caution is always good.
*Booth: Supports the ban. “It would take a lot to change my mind.” Noted that police, prosecutor and city law director support the ban.
*Menapace: Saying something shouldn't be revisited doesn't show an open mind. Feels council passed the ban premature. “We prohibited it before we even knew the rules and we used emotional, anecdotal evidence as the basis.”
*Starr: “Council pulled the plug too quickly.” There's a difference between marijuana and medical marijuana. He said it wasn't the potential economic loss, “it was the hope being suppressed to the people it could help.”
The at-large candidate panel followed a forum on the city's ½ percent income tax levy on the Nov. 7 ballot and a face-off between 4th Ward council candidates Susan Kahrl and Jeff Gottke. To watch all three discussions, visit https://portal.stretchinternet.com/mvnuadmin/. You can also access the video at mvnu.tv. Click on “on demand” and select Election 2017 on Oct. 3.