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City Commission candidates’ views are in stark contrast as election looms

By Corene Brisendine

Dave Schafer is a locally known conservative and Gary Stith is a locally known liberal. While they disagree on their preferred outcome of Tuesday’s city election, they are in full agreement that the result will be pivotal in determining how the city will operate during the next few years.

“I think the choices are pretty clear,” Stith said of the field of seven candidates.

During the past decade, city elections have become more polarized, appearing to turn on changing public perceptions of the role and responsibility of the governing body. That led to the election of a progressive-liberal majority in 2009 that passed a rental inspection ordinance and amended the human rights code to include sexual identity.

Those actions in turn led to the election of a generally conservative commission in 2011 that repealed both of the above steps, reduced spending on social services, and denied funding for a fixed route mass transportation system here.

The difference between the two local sides appears to mirror national differences. Conservatives believe the role and responsibility of commissioners is to reduce spending and governmental presence in the community, including limiting funding to social services and recreational venues. Progressives and liberals see a broader role that encompasses funding

social services and quality of life projects such as parks, public transportation and the arts.

Shafer, who is often aligned with conservative groups, and Stith, a former city planner who believes in a more active government role, typify the approaches of those differing groups.

Stith said the election is about which group will decide whether to fund basic needs and social services. At the moment, two commissioners — John Matta and Wynn Butler — are generally identified with the conservative side of the debate. Both are holdovers, meaning that conservatives need to win just one seat Tuesday to establish a majority. There is one clearly identified progressive-liberal on the current commission, that being Jim Sherow. But he chose not to run for re-election. The political affiliation of the other two incumbents, Loren Pepperd and Rich Jankovich — the only one of the five who is on Tuesday’s ballot — is less clear. Both have voted variously on issues usually viewed as measuring a commissioner’s commitment to liberal or conservative principles.

The affiliations of the other six candidates Tuesday appear more clear. John Ball has campaigned as a strong conservative, and former commissioner Bob Strawn was generally identified during his previous term as a conservative. At the other end of the spectrum, Deb Nuss has campaigned on behalf of issues identified with the progressive- liberal spectrum, and former city and county commissioner Karen McCulloh has generally been identified with that movement.

The public identities of the two remaining candidates are arguably slightly less clear. Usha Reddi has advocated middle of the road positions. But she sought the Democratic nomination for the state board of education last summer, and has been a leader of her profession’s local union, both steps generally affiliated more with the left than with the right. Daniel Hogan has generally enunciated conservative fiscal positions, although his support of adding sexual identity to the city’s human rights ordinance is generally viewed as at odds with conservative positions.

Stith believes it is important to elect commissioners who will support both basic needs and quality of life needs because both types of services are used by the city’s citizens. He sees those basic needs expanding beyond streets, sewers, water and fire services to include such items as parks, pools and social services.

That expansive approach to government service concerns Schafer, who is glad some candidates aren’t afraid to say the city needs to “live within our means in regards to spending our tax money.” He said the city has spent a considerable amount of money in recent years, and has increased city debt two to three times what it was a few years ago. He likened city spending to a private citizen over-charging a credit card.

Schafer believes the role of local government is to provide only basic services— roads and bridges, water, sewer, and to some degree, police and fire safety. As for everything else, he said the city should “stay out of people’s lives” as much as possible.

In their campaigns, Strawn, Ball and Hogan have all agreed the city’s debt and overspending are the main focuses of this election, and all expressed a desire to “rein in that spending.” Hogan said lowering the city’s debt will in turn lower taxes, resulting in growth, ‘which many are seeking.’ Ball said the ‘high cost of living’ here not only negatively impacts the city’s ability to attract businesses, but also adversely affects those living on fixed incomes.

Strawn said the city needs to focus on infrastructure, public safety and growth. He also wants to study local governmental consolidation as a way to save taxpayers money.

In contrast, McCulloh, Nuss and Reddi all view the city’s debt as ‘manageable.’ They believe commissioners are charged with balancing city spending with quality of life.

Nuss said the city’s debt has already been addressed, and various revenue streams have been created to reduce it. That included a redirection of some money from a sales tax from economic development to debt relief.

‘Taking an axe to the budget because we have some debt is a knee-jerk reaction and not a good approach to financing city operations and services,’ she said. ‘We can ensure that government services are maintained and adequately financed while being sensitive to the burden of the taxpayer.’ McCulloh said public transportation and the library are illustrations of services that are vital to the community. Commissioners last year decided not to provide operating funds for a fixed-route mass transit system here, and they just last week narrowly agreed to terms that will allow the library to expand. McCulloh is concerned that a more conservative commission might threaten one or both of those programs.

Reddi said her conversations indicate that people think Manhattan is doing well, but she is concerned about budget cuts coming down from state and federal governments that may put a greater burden on local governments to support some services.

Since finishing third in the 2011 election, Jankovich has often found himself occupying a middle ground on a series of contentious issues. He sided with the commission conservatives in their successful effort to repeal the rental inspection program, but unsuccessfully opposed their effort to repeal the addition of sexual identity to the city’s human rights ordinance. Jankovich also sided with the liberals in the library expansion debate.

Jankovich said while he did not see any specific issue trumping all others, including the revolving issues of gay rights and rental inspections, he did think the community was concerned with fiscal responsibility.

Gina Scroggs, executive director of Downtown Manhattan, Inc., thinks the debt is definitely the most important issue, and believes the question will be about how that is dealt with. ‘Some feel it is a large thing that needs to be tackled, and others think it is more moderate,’ she said.

Scroggs hopes the next commission balances quality of life with fiscal responsibility.

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