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Candidate forum offers civilized discourse
Oct 23, 2012 3:30 pm
For those who think politics is simply a blood sport, and there is no room for rational discussion, an event like the candidate forum sponsored by The Lebanon Democrat and the Lebanon-Wilson County Chamber of Commerce comes along to remind that rational discourse is possible.
Monday night in the Lebanon High School auditorium, candidates for Lebanon City Council, two contenders for the lone open spot on the Lebanon Special School District board and the two men vying to be Lebanon's next mayor met to air their views and make their positions clear on a number of issues.
Moderated by Chris Crowell, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the candidates were polite and respectful of one another and of their time constraints.
The evening began with an informal "meet-and-greet" session and moved into a session with the candidates hoping to join the Lebanon City Council that allowed each to introduce themselves and talk about their vision for the city.
Lanny Jewell is the candidate from Ward 1, and his opponent has asked that he not be considered for the post. Jewell told the audience that he is a lifelong resident of the city, a graduate of Lebanon High School and part of a family business.
"We've managed to keep a family business going without business cards or advertising in the phone book," he said. "We were known by our reputation and by word of mouth. I want my reputation to speak for itself. My reputation means everything to me."
He said times are hard for a lot of people.
"I want to bring back the jobs so young people can stay here in Lebanon," Jewell said.
Ward 2 candidates Fred Burton and Annette Stafford then spoke about their ideas for Lebanon.
Burton said he had been an alderman before and recounted the accomplishments of that body when he served before including improvements in the water and sewer systems, athletic fields, construction of a new police headquarters, the Jimmy Floyd Center and Don Fox Park.
"It takes setting definite goals and pursuing them with flawless execution," Burton said. "We must bring our city up to date."
Stafford said she is a lifelong resident of Lebanon and that during her time as a Wilson County Commissioner she helped bring about the new Lebanon High School.
"I'm the most involved and dedicated to serving the people of my community," she said. "I've worked with the county government when I was on the commission, and I'm ready to transfer to being a city councilor."
Stafford touted the need to look to the future.
"We need infrastructure," she said. "We need to recruit more jobs for the city as a whole, but there are not quick or simple fixes."
Ward 5 is fielding three candidates for the job, Robert "Tick" Bryan, Jim Mills and Billy Weeks.
Bryan introduced himself saying he was nicknamed Tick when he was 12 years old and it would take too long to explain why.
"I'm very disappointed in our current city council," Bryan said. "We need less bickering and more results. I'm new to the political arena but I will be myself and be accountable to the people who elected me."
Mills confessed the truth - he was raised in McMinnville. He noted he was a Vietnam Veteran and had worked at TRW for 25 years affording his family the ability to raise their children here. He served on the council for two terms in 1997 and 2001.
"We've got a good mayor and a good council but they haven't been able to work together," he said. "Politics is not personal, politics is business. I have a proven track record and you know what you get with me."
Weeks referenced his 32 years with local police and public safety.
"I'm very proud of that," Weeks said. "I've worked with four different mayors, and numerous council people (except Jim Mills he said to laugher) and I've learned from them."
Weeks said he finds it humbling to hear about the problems from the people in his district, and he listed the situations they, and he, want to see addressed.
"Flooding and drainage must be addressed," he said, adding that mosquitoes and West Nile Virus are real problems in the city. "People are scared, and I don't blame them. When you can't go out in your own back yard, it's a problem."
He also said sidewalks in his ward need to be updated or, in some cases, installed, for safety.
"When you see someone in a wheelchair in the middle of the road, it's like a video game," Weeks said. "We need to do better. We need to work together to make our vision come true."
Next the two candidates are re-doing the August election for a spot on the Lebanon Special School District board. Challenger Johnie Payton articulated her ideas alongside her opponent incumbent Steve Jones. Payton won by a single vote in the August primary, but Jones successfully moved to have the results overturned.
Jones said he had been on the board for 24 years in a system that went from 1,700 kids in 1988 to 3,500 students today.
"That's the progress we've had in 24 years," he said, adding that the LSSD has never had a true budget crisis nor a tax increase during his tenure.
"We want to be better than everybody else," Jones said. "I've got two grand babies here tonight. The most important thing is to get these kids a great education. We employ the best people and we will continue to move forward."
Payton began by singing "God Bless America" and asking who is America? She said the important thing is for the school district to produce "citizens and leaders of tomorrow."
Herself a former teacher, Payton stressed the need for education.
"Education is the single most valuable investment we can make in the lives of young people," she said, going on to cite smaller class sizes, and more parent-teacher cooperation as keys to improving education in the city.
"I have a deep passion for the children in this city," she said.
Next up was the main attraction, the debate between the two candidates vying to be the mayor of Lebanon — incumbent Philip Craighead and challenger Robert "Bob" O'Brien. Both began by introducing themselves before going into a debate-style format with questions from members of the Chamber of Commerce and from the general public via The Democrat's social networking outlets.
O'Brien said he had 45 years in business at senior-level positions. He said he loved the city and wanted it to afford residents a high quality of life. Craighead said he has lived in Lebanon since 1969 and had always been self-employed until he became mayor and found himself with 25,000 bosses.
The first question was whether the candidates were in favor of fluoridating Lebanon's drinking water.
Craighead said the city used fluoride in the past, but supplies were cut off in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. He said he has heard both sides of the argument - "that it's poison and from the dentists" who favor the policy. He said he would ask dentists to come to a council work session so the idea could be hashed out.
O'Brien said he had lived in various parts of the country and was aware of the pros and cons on both sides of the issue.
"There needs to be a complete discussion with citizens and the council to come up with a plan," he said. "We need to demonstrate to the public it's safe or debunk that."
The candidates were next asked their philosophy about long-range planning.
O'Brien said, as a member of the Wilson County Economic Development Committee, "I believe 100 percent in long-range planning," which is something he thinks is "lacking" in the current administration.
Craighead said as he took office and the recession took hold, long-range planning was a luxury the city couldn't afford as he and the council were "just trying to make sure we didn't go backward week to week or month to month." He said with the economy showing signs of recovery, his department heads are coming up with plans, such as the recently agreed upon plan to fix the storm water problems "where money can be spent with the biggest effect." He also noted the progress the city has made bringing companies like Amazon to the city by working with the county.
The next question was about the proposed 1/2-cent sales tax increase within the city limits and whether each candidate supports it.
"Most definitely," Craighead said of his support for the measure. "The council is trying to figure where revenue will come from. Progress comes at a cost, it takes dollars to move things forward."
He estimated the increase in the sale tax would generate about $3.5 million that can be used to balance the budget and fix infrastructure in the city.
O'Brien was skeptical about whether the tax increase would help or hurt the city's economy.
"The case has not been made that we need a sales tax increase," he said, adding with the economy improving, sales taxes would go up anyway.
In a related question, the candidate were asked how they would cope with the city's finances if the measure fails.
O'Brian said the mayor and council need to "lead by example" and cut their own health benefits he sees as a burden on the citizens of Lebanon. He also advocated making sure each department was a lean as possible without hurting essential services.
Craighead said the sales tax referendum was a way to take the need for increased revenue off city residents as much as possible since everyone who shops here will pay the higher rate. He also said city employees have already had their insurance rates go up during the budget crunch.
Next, the pair were questioned about the importance of openness in government.
Craighead said he tried to be as honest as possible with everyone and that he stands by his reputation for honesty. O'Brien echoed those feeling saying that in his entire business career he worked with honesty. He added that while disagreements are inevitable in any group, it is important that everyone have open discussions to come to the best solutions for problems.
When questioned about term limits, neither candidate seemed concerned. Craighead questioned how many times anyone would want the job and added he didn't think term limits "need to be legislated at this level."
The mayor's Cumberland Center plan was brought to the forefront when the candidates were questioned about bringing growth to parts of the city.
Craighead said he had been working to make the Cumberland Center a reality for a while, and that it has already produced jobs and will produce more.
"When we have the mechanisms in place we're telling the world and the business world we're going to have something special," he said. "I believe in this."
O'Brien said while he was "100 percent for growth" he would not limit himself to helping one side of town or the other, "I want growth for the whole city." As to the Cumberland Center, O'Brien questioned the wisdom having "government getting involved in private investment."
The pair was asked about the benefits of city employees and the benefits given to members and former members of the city council. O'Brien said he supports a "complete review of the benefits program." Craighead agreed saying the next council should "take a look at it" with an eye toward making needed changes.
Finally, the candidates were asked about what legacy they want to leave if they get the job.
Craighead cited planned improvement to the Lebanon Town Square, the planned event center, transportation and other infrastructure improvements as the legacy he wants to leave.
"If we can do that," he said. "We can keep the heart of our city going strong."
O'Brien said he didn't think in terms of a legacy.
"I would like to see a city where we don't need an economic development agency," he said. "Education and transportation are the keys to becoming a desirable location."
With that the candidates shook hands like gentlemen and prepared to fight it out until the Nov. eneral Election.
Staff writer Mary Hinds may be reached at 444-3952, ext. 45 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org