Local candidates who spoke at a forum hosted by the Rotary Club of Jefferson Tuesday agreed on many things, particularly in their optimism about Jefferson’s future. More than 50 persons attended the forum, which was held at Greene County elementary and moderated by Rotarian Rick Morain.
Greene County school board candidate John McConnell was the first candidate to speak. “I want to keep things going the way they’re going… Good things are coming along,” he said during his introductory remarks.
Jefferson mayor Craig Berry, who has been mayor for 12 years and was on the council for 19 years before that, claims credit for the changes.
He said he’s built relationships with civic groups and persons at all levels of government, including Gov Kim Reynolds and Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and that Durham calls him her “favorite mayor.”
“I’ve been a catalyst since I’ve been mayor,” Berry said. “I know we were somewhat stagnant for awhile before. When I came on I hoped to bring energy to the position.” He added that because he’s retired he has “innumerable” time to put into the position.
Berry said his future plans are to maintain the pace at which the city is moving now both fiscally and with current city staff. He named the new automated garbage truck as a goal he’s accomplished. “I’ve been pushing Mike Palmer on ways to do it without increasing costs and doing stuff, and with this bond issue that just got approved I found a way. I know we can be more efficient in certain aspects of city government. This is one of the ways I do it,” Berry said.
He said he looks at things to propose to Palmer that are within the budget that’s set and won’t “create something we can’t afford.”
He said the council has done recent bond issues to maintain the city’s debt limit. “We can drop off (the debt levy) and you guys can have two years of less property tax. Two years down the road, something fails, something happens, and we need to bond for that issue. What are you people going to do if your property taxes caused by the city go up 10 percent? Are you going to complain or be all happy because you had two years of paying a cheap rate?”
He said the city is “maintaining the levy. When bonds go off, there are new bonds that come on so we can maintain that levy.”
Matt Gordon, who is challenging Berry, has been on the city council for two years. He said he’s ready to step into a leadership role and “an opportunity to work with the city administrator and focus on some additional things to help the city function better.”
“It’s time for new leadership to step up and expand on transparency, accountability and follow-through on some issues,” Gordon said.
Gordon said spending is important, and that it seems the council has kept “adding and adding to the bonds. We’ve still got to pay that money back. We just had a $2.5 million bond. Coming down the road in a few years we do have some debt dropping off. We’ve got a project coming up to replace Lincoln Way from Grimmell Road to Lincoln Way. That’s going to be $4 million, and it looks like the way we’re going to pay for that is more bonds.”
“We’ve got to be fiscally responsible because it does choke us down when we’re running right up to that debt limit from some of the things we want to do,” Gordon said.
A member of the audience asked Berry and Gordon where “the buck stops” and “who’s in charge of the city.”
Gordon said the buck stops with the mayor and the city administrator. “Those two together are running the city,” he said.
Berry thinks the mayor runs the city. “I consider myself the CEO of the city, with Mike Palmer being on the administrative staff,” he said, and that problems with particular city departments should be “run up the ladder.
There were few clear differences between candidates running for other positions.
Sean Sebourn, Dave Sloan and Matt Wetrich are running for two positions on the Jefferson city council. Sloan and Wetrich are incumbents.
Sebourn, who graduated from Jefferson-Scranton high school in 2003, said he learned the value of community service in high school and that he waited until his business (Sebourn Video Services) was established and his children (ages 11 and 10) were a little older. “The time is right to put in the time and effort needed to be the voice of the people,” he said.
Wetrich has served on the city council for two years. He mentioned progress in Jefferson, specifically naming the approval of the school bond issue and the work of Main Street. “I’m running again because I want to continue the progress and see other things come to fruition we’ve been talking about and see all the exciting things we have to come,” he said. “I’m looking forward to doing things that will continue to attract families to a community our size.”
Sloan has been on the council for four years. “We’ve got a lot going on in Jefferson and that’s why I’d like to get re-elected. There’s stuff I want to see finished and I think I can help get it to that point,” he said.
Moderator Morain asked the first question of the council candidates, asking if the council should pass a code for the living and safety conditions of rental property. Wetrich and Sloan both said they’d be in favor of researching what’s done in other towns.
Sebourn shared the story of the rental property where he and his wife Miranda lived when their first child was born. They learned there was lead paint in the apartment when their son was diagnosed with lead poisoning. He said the property owner did nothing thing, and when he talked with the city council about it in 2009 the council did nothing. He said it would be a very personal thing to him to “make sure families are safe and children are safe.”
The candidates were asked about the 10-year tax abatement given to the developer of multi-family rental units east of St Joseph Parish Center. Wetrich and Sloan defended the abatement, calling it the best way to get rental housing in the community. Sebourn said he’s concerned that the expected rent is more than people can pay.
Wetrich and Sloan both defended the city’s role in purchasing and rehabilitating buildings around the downtown square. Sebourn agreed that there’s value to keeping the historic buildings viable, but said it’s important “not to overlook businesses that have invested 30 years in the town.”
Randy Lebeck, who lives two miles south of Grand Junction, is hoping to win a seat on the Greene County school board. Incumbents John McConnell and Steve Fisher are also running.
Lebeck called himself a “fiscal conservative.” “I was against the school. I voted against it, but we have it. That’s over. I’m behind the school, but I want to make sure that in the future we have money to take good care of it,” he said.
He said he has nothing against the incumbents, “but I have my own thoughts and I wanted to give it a shot.”
Fisher, like McConnell, said he wants “to continue the good things we‘ve got going on here.” In his three years on the board he thinks the board has become more “user friendly” and is working at becoming more open and transparent.
Morain asked the candidates their thoughts on the administration’s suggestion of decreasing the number of elective credits needed for high school graduation.
Fisher said he is not in favor of “diluting” the graduation requirements, but he wants to look at what courses are taught and how what the learning expectations of students are. (The board at its October meeting appointed a committee to do that work.)
McConnell reassured the audience the intention isn’t to decrease the number of courses offered. He said some graduates have had problems getting college financial aid when they graduate from high school with a lot of college credits from dual credit classes, (Many of the electives high school students take are available for dual credit.) “We’re trying to find the balance of what we need versus what they need to still be able to provide good students well educated in the core we want, but not hurt them in the future,” McConnell said.
Lebeck said he’d like to see a strong emphasis on core classes, and said, “If we dilute it too much, they’re behind the ball whether they go to trade school or college.”
Attitudes about inclusive education were aired when a mother of elementary children asked about the “clear the room” practice of separating a child with an extreme behavior issue from his classmates by removing the other classmates from the room rather than removing the unruly child.
According to McConnell, the Iowa Department of Education has mandated use of “clear the room.” He skirted the question, saying it isn’t a board level decision. Fisher said there are children who aren’t suited to be in a regular classroom, and that he also questions whether students who don’t speak English should be there. Lebeck said smarter children deserve the best education they can get, without interruptions from children with behavior disorders, but that special needs children also deserve the best education possible.
The candidates were asked what the biggest challenges will be in the next five years. Lebeck answered the challenge would be planning for money to maintain the school buildings. “Even a brand new roof needs to be replaced eventually,” he said. McConnell and Fisher named enrollment and the budget as a big challenge, as well as mental health issues of students.
The candidates were also asked if there’s been any effort to determine why Greene County loses more students to open enrollment than it gains.
McConnell said some years the number of inbound and outbound open enrolled students is nearly equal, and that he thinks the new high school and community growth will lessen the outbound side of it. Fisher said the trend seems to be changing, and that the district needs to continue to strive to be responsive to people.
Lebeck said he thinks there are people who feel disenfranchised, that there’s still bitterness over the closing of the Scranton and East Greene buildings. “The board needs better communication, to find a way to get the community back together again. There are ill feelings out there,” he said.