Editor’s note: This is our final installment of reports concerning Tuesday night’s Candidates Forum presented by the Tribune and the Great Bend chapter of the League of Women Voters. Wednesday, we reported on questions asked of and responses given by Great Bend mayoral candidates, and Thursday we turned to candidates for USD 428 Board of Education.
The largest group of candidates, nine total, are vying for four seats on the Great Bend City Council.
In addition to this report, the Tribune videotaped a live feed broadcast which appears and has been archived on the Great Bend Tribune facebook page.
The largest field of candidates for city council in recent memory presented itself at the Candidates Forum Tuesday night at the Crest Theater. The atmosphere was hopeful. The majority of the candidates are lifelong residents of Great Bend, a fact of which they take pride. Those who came to Great Bend as adults have raised their families and built lives here, and want to do thier part to move the city forward into the future.
Candidates for Ward 1 include Dan Heath and Mike Boys. Boys was appointed earlier this year to fill a vacancy left by Mike Zinn.
Ward 2 candidates include Rachel Mawhirter, Matt Suchy, and Jolene Biggs. Biggs was recently appointed to fill the vacancy left by Wayne Henneke in August.
Ward 3 candidates are Stacy Dougherty, Thomas Boor and Cory Urban, and Andrew Erb is the only candidate on the ballot for Ward 4. They are running for the positions that will come open as Alene Owen and Brock McPherson come off, respectively. Owen and McPherson are candidates for Mayor, along with Joe Andrasek.
All candidates took their seats, save for Ward 3 candidate Thomas Boor, who was not present, and who did not submit a bio to the League. The Tribune contacted Boor Thursday. He was offered an opportunity to submit his bio, but we did not receive in time for printing.
After their opening statements, Heath was the first candidate to draw for the first round of questions.
The high school teacher and owner of A440 Music, was asked, “Would you favor a city-wide clean-up plan, where people could have free city removal of items and debris from the curb? Explain.”
Heath replied in the affirmative, and suggested that to do so at minimal expense, high school students could help, providing community service hours.
Mawhirter was drew next. Her question was, “As a council member, would you consider it your duty to be familiar with all materials provided prior to the meeting, including those from outside the organization?”
Mawhirter is a local business owner, and attended school in Great Bend, graduating from Great Bend High School, attending Barton Community College and graduating from Fort Hays State University. She responded that she feels being educated on the issues and being prepared are essential to the position, and would like to see council packets be available electronically in order to give council more time to prepare. Currently, she noted, packets are sent hard copy by mail, a needless waste of time.
Next up was Suchy, also a lifetime Great Bend resident, GBHS graduate, and actively working locally in the oil and gas industry. His question was, “How may a citizen of Great Bend have an issue placed on the City Council agenda?”
Suchy started by saying he felt everyone’s concerns should be addressed, but then veered from answering the question to suggest that the public be given a short window of time, perhaps three minutes, following each agenda item in order to comment.
Boys was asked how he would address the lack of sufficient middle income housing in Great Bend. Boys, who grew up in Hoisington and moved to Great Bend in 1970, and expressed a desire to work together to face each issue as it comes, responded that he was not convinced there is a lack of such housing. As an insurance agent, he has heard from several homeowners in Great Bend that they are having a difficult time selling their moderately priced homes. He said the focus should be on encouraging business to locate here and ensure jobs with adequate salaries are available.
Boys was followed by Dougherty. His question, “Would you favor placing city employees on the KPERS retirement plan to help improve retention of police, fire and other staff? Explain.”
The lifelong resident, local business owner, and third generation entrepreneur said he had recently spoken with individual firefighters and police, and said it is a hot button issue for them. He is in favor of KPERS for these employees, and in fact feels it is non-negotiable if Great Bend is to attract long-term employees, rather than being a training facility for other departments.
Biggs chose to address the question already drawn by Dan Heath concerning city cleanup.
When the question came up in Hoisington, she said, she researched it and learned just how expensive a city-wide clean-up can be. She also noted that environmental laws dictate in some instances how items need to be disposed of properly, and that high school students may not be the right choice. Other factors need to be taken into consideration, and ultimately she thinks its something constituents need to be educated on and determine if they feel the benefits are worthy of the cost.
Erb also graduated from Great Bend High School, and credited the forum moderator, Rose Kelly, with inspiring him to run for public office. He was asked, “Are you pleased with the way the city handles snow removal? Explain.”
He replied he feels the city does a great job. Weather in recent years hasn’t made the job of snow removal a problem, and the salt-sand application takes care of the problem effectively.
Urban pulled the last question in the first round. He was asked, “Is it ethical for a city council member to receive payment from the city for consulting work, etc. while serving on the city council?”
Urban, who sees himself as an everyman who wants to fuel economic development and make public safety a priority for Great Bend, prefaced his reply, saying that earlier that day, he had attended a League of Municipalities seminar at the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce that addressed the question. He replied that he had learned that if bids for a project were solicited in an open bidding process, a city council member could be awarded a bid. He also stated that he is opposed to receiving favors from special interest groups, and as a rule, he would not want to receive payment for service he performs for the city.
The second round of questions switched the order of candidates up.
Suchy opted to address the question about adequate housing for the middle income that Boys picked during the first round. He first referred to his construction background, and conversations he has had with local contractors who feel they haven’t been given adequate notice to bid on major projects. These bids are awarded to crews from out of the area, taking local dollars away, he said. But, he had to cut his answer short for time.
Biggs’ second question was, “What do you think should be done about continued storm drainage problems in the city?”
She responded the issue is complex, with no easy solutions. She felt an engineering company needs to be brought in to determine a solution, and when that is done, the council can work on implementing it.
Boys was asked, “What do you see as the best way to attract competent and well-qualified employees in all segments of the city’s operation?”
He prefaced his answer with the statement that he had been a personnel director at Superior Essex in Hoisington in the past. Employees, he said, are attracted to many different aspects of the city. More important is attracting employers who can produce jobs. “I can’t tell you how to do it, but I will work with you once you do,” he said.
Mawhirter also opted to address the question about middle income housing. She spoke about the existing Community Revitalization Program. She shared that she only learned how it works after she and her husband had made renovations to their home, and she was unable to benefit from the program.
“We need to promote this program better, and partner with realtors and employers who are bringing employees into the community,” she said. She also called for reevaluating code restrictions downtown, where commercial buildings where strict regulations requiring sprinkler systems on the second and subsequent floors keep those spaces from being used for offices or apartments.
Heath opted to address the question about recruiting people to Great Bend which Boys had pulled earlier. He said Great Bend needs to work on branding in order to attract creative people. These people, he said, are not afraid of technology and would be able to get a sense of the place without traveling here first. For this reason, he said, “we need to use technology to put our best face forward...show them how great Great Bend can be and they can make it great too.”
Dougherty pulled the question, “How could transparency on city council proceedings be improved?”
“Live streams are great,” he said, referring the city council’s recently implemented live streaming of council meetings. He noted he was able to watch the Monday night meeting online.
Urban’s second question was, “One of the “vision milestones” listed in the city’s guiding documents is “to encourage our youth to become involved in our community.” How would you encourage our young people to become involved?”
Urban responded that the youth academy should be continued. “In general, I think we’re doing a good job getting younger people involved,” he said. He pointed to several of the candidates on stage with him, noting that he is 35 years old, and Erb, the youngest, was nearing 20.
Erb’s second question was the final one for the night. He was asked, “In 2015/2016, the city council set goals, among which was continued improvements to infrastructure. What infrastructure improvements do you consider the most vital?”
He responded first pointing to the Great Bend Transload Facility as one of the accomplishments. But then, he switched gears and suggested a partnership between the city and the schools to bring more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields to the area. “It’s the future of jobs in America,” he said, noting that increasing diversity in employment fields would be good for the city.
Candidates were then given a chance to make closing statements, and Kelly thanked the audience for coming.
“It’s good to look out and see people interested in what’s happening in our city,” she said. She encouraged them to talk about what they heard that night with their friends and families, and to make a point of voting on or before Nov. 7.